Nature January 14, 2020
25 Years Ago, Wolves Were Re-Introduced To Wyoming In A Controversial Move That Affects The State Today
When Yellowstone National Park was founded in 1878, gray wolves were part of the unique ecosystem that attracted visitors and nature lovers from all over the country. Despite the creation of the park, wolves were still subject to government predator control programs, and in 1926, the last wolves of Yellowstone were hunted and killed. By the 1940s, wolves had been effectively eliminated from the lower 48 states thanks to efforts by ranchers, farmers, and the federal government. When the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, conservationists began a campaign to bring wild wolves back to northwestern Wyoming.
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On January 12, 1995, environmentalists, Wyomingites, and school children all lined up at the Roosevelt Arch to watch history as wolves were brought back into Yellowstone for the first time in nearly 70 years.
This first herd — part of a well-debated reintroduction process — was quarantined for several weeks and released into the park on March 21, changing the history of Yellowstone forever.
The second pack was released the next spring into the Lamar Valley, and quickly became the most celebrated pack in the park.
The Druids grew to about 40 wolves, making it one of the largest wolfpacks ever recorded. This world-famous pack slowly dwindled in number in the 2010s due to a pack-wide mange that devastated and weakened the wolves. Many split off to head different packs as the Druids pack dissolved. The last original member of the Druid pack met his end when he was shot (legally) by a hunter in Montana, just outside the park boundary.
Today, there are around a dozen wild packs that live within the park boundaries. That's down from their peak in 2004 when more than 170 wolves lived in 16 packs that roamed the land.
By the late 2000s, gray wolf populations had been successfully reintroduced, meeting the goals of the original Wolf Recovery Plan. In May 2008, gray wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains were removed from the Endangered Species List, and their status was changed. In response, Idaho and Montana introduced hunting seasons on the gray wolf, and Montana held the first one in 2009.
Wolf reintroduction and protection has been a hot topic of debate between ranchers and environmentalists for decades. Wolves that leave the park boundary have been known to terrorize livestock.
To help combat the effects on the ranchers, millions of dollars of federal subsidies have been allocated to farmers in Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana. Additionally, a private Defenders of Wildlife Wolf Compensation Trust was established by concerned citizens. Their donations and fundraisers have awarded more than $1.3 million to ranchers affected by wolves.
To the ranchers, monetary compensation is not enough. Thousands of cattle and sheep have been killed by wolves and other apex predators, and the cost of protecting herds has increased. Additionally, compensation for livestock can be difficult to apply for and takes time to receive. To many, the hassle of having wolves around is not worth it, and poaching is common.
On the other side of the debate are the conservationists. Those who have worked tirelessly to help wolf populations recover do so to help restore the balance within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
Researchers track wolf packs daily from the ground and from the air, studying pack movement, predation patterns, inter-species behavior, and more. Wolves within the park help maintain a balance by hunting elk, pronghorn, and mule deer that had risen to unsustainable populations before wolves were reintroduced.
Since the wolves have returned, the balance of the park has shifted dramatically. Yellowstone's Coyote population was once the most dense in the world, but now their packs have gotten smaller and their hunting range has changed. There are more foxes now that the Coyotes have changed their behavior. One odd impact is that the beaver population and presence of beaver dams has increased tremendously. This is thought to be caused by the fact that moose and elk have to spread out more, rather than concentrating on certain areas and eating up all the willows the beavers would use to build dams.
Yellowstone is one of the only places where you can regularly spot wild wolves, thanks to the protections within the park, abundance of prey, and the fact that the wolves are well tracked.
The Yellowstone Forever Institute offers wolf programs that will teach you about this impressive apex predator and take you on tours where you might spot them yourself.
Like many polarizing issues, it's hard to find a Wyomginite without a strong opinion on a wolf-free world or the support of a once endangered species. Where do you stand on the wolf debate?
Everyone who lives out here in the Cowboy State has an opinion on wolves! Let’s talk about it in the comments below.
You can learn more about the wolves of Yellowstone National Park
on their Gray Wolf website, here. Address: Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190, USA