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Visiting Yellowstone Wolves Evokes New Emotions

“…the best wolf habitat resides in the human heart. You have to leave a little space for them to live.” – Ed Bangs (Former Wolf Recovery Coordinator U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Yellowstone: The “little space” wolves were given in 1995 and 1996 when the federal government gave the green light to return wolves to portions of their native range in the West. The reintroduction of gray wolves to our first national park has been described as a near-miracle, having occurred at one of those rare moments when stars align in the political sky.

A wildlife conservation effort with such positive environmental impact (and ongoing controversy) will likely go unmatched for a long time. But with the support of the American public almost two decades ago, a new chapter in Yellowstone’s history began, with a homecoming that changed the Park.

Many people are familiar with “The Yellowstone Story:” the remarkable rejuvenation of the Yellowstone landscape since the reintroduction of this keystone species. Wolves were exterminated in the Park by the mid-1920s but, since wolf populations were restored, scientists have noted more diverse plant and wildlife thriving where they had been suppressed for decades.

Articles and books for children and adults alike have recounted this narrative and wildlife enthusiasts have flocked to Yellowstone to behold the “wolf-effect” first hand. Since the arrival of those first 14 wolves, the species have thrived in the park, inspiring those who spy them through their scopes. I’ve been to the park a half a dozen times in recent years, but my October outing with the National Wolfwatcher Coalition was full of “firsts.”

I brought my 5-year-old daughter with me, and for the first time I was given the amazing opportunity to experience Yellowstone first hand and through her eyes as well. We watched a Rough-Legged Hawk tirelessly plummet from the sky into the tall grass to come up empty handed time and time again. “Good for the mouse, bad for the bird,” she said. We watched wolves pursue elk and emerge victorious. “Good for the wolves, bad for the elk,” she said. Nature’s balance.

It was also my first visit to the park during wolf hunting season. A piece of Yellowstone is located in Montana, another in Idaho, but the majority of the park falls in Wyoming – a state that permits wolves to be killed by any means, at any time, without a license in all but its northwest corner. Wolves sheltered in the park have always known threats. Wolf populations regulate themselves by natural forces such as intra-pack strife, competition with neighboring packs and predators, and ailments like distemper and mange. Packs continuously emerge and collapse; it’s Nature’s way. But with authorized wolf hunts in every state that borders the park, Yellowstone wolves face countless threats and some not lawful. During our stay a dead horse was staged just outside the northern border of the Park to lure members of the often observed Blacktail pack beyond the safety of Yellowstone’s reach. Many of the Park’s neighboring communities are avidly anti-wolf and sometimes the more popular the wolf, the bigger target they become. With so many unnatural threats, will the balance my daughter so easily recognized be lost?

How is it that wolves can be considered so worthless, when they alone have drawn an abundance of tourists to Yellowstone since their return to the West? National Parks Service estimates that wolf watchers bring $35M tourism dollars to the greater Yellowstone area annually. Sadly, the economic and ecological value of wolves remains ignored. By the end of December 2012, the Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming hunts claimed 338 wolves including at least 10 wolves from Yellowstone. I do encourage young and old to visit Yellowstone, to be touched it’s dynamic landscape and it’s well adapted beasts. But be mindful to support those who do not aim to destroy the very purpose of your visit.

WCC Acting Director, Maggie Howell