Changes Seen a Decade After Yellowstone’s Wolf Reintroduction

yellowstone wolves off endangered species list

Wolves are an Unforgettable Sight

My wolf appeared and disappeared so quickly, I still imagine it was a dream, a whisper somewhere in my consciousness, a micro-memory pinned between reality and myth. But, I did see him. The details are too sharp, too lucid to be anything less than reality. It is an image I will carry to my grave.

It was one of those rare days in Yellowstone Country that defy what we know as Western weather. Fog and rain. Coastal weather. Not the kind of weather that you would think would envelope your Rocky Mountain experience. Clouds rolled across the highest peaks, those lofty Tetons, so famous, so photographed. The mountains were lost. Unless you knew they were there, you didn’t know they were there. Ahead, traffic slowed. There was construction on the road between Togwotee Pass and Moran Junction and I geared down the pickup truck and slowed to a near halt.

There was no reason for me to look to my right, past the entrance sign to Grand Teton National Park and through the drizzle into the aspens off my right shoulder. But I did. Now, a few years later, I think my eyes were drawn there, pulled by that unknown force that has paralleled the path of man and canine for as long as we’ve been walking this ground together.

The memory goes like this: Against the bone white bark of the aspen trees, he stood dark-a picture with as much contrast as an Ansel Adams black and white print. His coat was smoke-black and beads of water spangled his fur. He may have been trotting toward the road and he may have been wanting to cross. But for whatever reason-is it too much to think that perhaps he felt my eyes upon him?-he froze and then pivoted and whirled back into the woods. The last image I have is of him loping out of sight back into the national park. But never out of my memory.

Your wolf may be like this one-a split second gasp, a fragment shared between naked eye and mythic mammal. Or, if you are lucky, perhaps you will have a longer moment, even long enough to note wolf behavior in your journal, to jot notes down in the diary at night about how your wolf did this or that. Perhaps your wolf will be seen with the aid of a long lens set upon a sturdy tripod at the edge of the Lamar Valley, a zoomed-in close-up and intimate look at this amazing creature. Whatever form your wolf takes, you can be sure that your wolf will live with you. He will give you the kind of image that cannot be rubbed out or faded by the years. That vision will last.

Breaking New Ground with the Wolf Reintroduction

If there is one thing that can be said of the Yellowstone wolf reintroduction, it is that everything about it is changing the science of wolves. When the first wolves stepped cautiously out of their pens in the Lamar country on the northeastern edge of Yellowstone National Park in 1995, biologists were breaking new ground. No one in the history of mankind had actually caught three wild packs of wolves, removed them miles from their homes, and released them somewhere else. But that is exactly what we did in 1995 when fourteen wolves from Hinton, Alberta, were released into the Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley and again in 1996 when seventeen more wolves came to Yellowstone courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Later that summer, 10 wolf pups from a pack in Montana were added to the mix, bringing the number of wolves reintroduced to Yellowstone to forty-one.

Almost a decade later, Yellowstone country was once again wolf country, as it was in the 1800s. Here in this intricate ecosystem that sprawls across 18 million acres of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, is a bit of what once was. Nowhere else in this country will you be able to see the land like this with its full complement of creatures, from the great grizzly, to the pronghorn, to the wolf, to the nearly-lost bison. This is what we have been wise enough to keep. Until that March day in 1995, it was missing but one component-the wolf. Today, Yellowstone is whole.

Wolves make many a trip to Yellowstone complete. As the author and naturalist Jim Halfpenny wrote in his excellent book, Yellowstone Wolves In the Wild, “Wolves are visible somewhere in the park virtually every day.”

Yellowstone’s Wolf Population

After wolves were released into the park, the wolf population in and around Yellowstone grew tremendously. By the end of 2003, 306 wolves inhabited the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. That spring, wolf pups were born in dens around the ecosystem and the howl of the wolf will be heard on ridgelines that have been absent of that song for 100 or more years. Wolves were found south to the Wind River Range in Wyoming and north into the Gravelly Range in Montana.

From the very beginning, when the wolves were released into the ecosystem in 1995, they have been extremely visible. That first summer, wolves of the Crystal Creek pack were seen right from the road in Lamar Valley. As a result, visitation to our nation’s first national park has jumped considerably. That visibility has delighted not only the layman, but the scientist.

“It has been visibility beyond the greatest expectation of anybody both for scientific research and for the public to learn and see about wolves,” said Halfpenny. “So many pieces of dogma that we used to pass out are not holding up well, for instance multiple females breeding in packs, multiple males serving alpha functions, just all sorts of great stuff . . . there’s no way that people could have ever learned this without the visibility that has been there. Dave Mech [a scientist who is largely considered to be the world’s leading authority on the gray wolf] said that he’s spent his whole career trying to see what we’ve seen in a month.”

Wolves’ Affect on Other Animals

One thing that science is discovering is the wolf’s relationship with other animals in the park. Until the wolf entered the park, the coyote was the top canine and the grizzly bear the king of the mountain. Yet elk, which are the most abundant prey animal in the park, didn’t face a daily threat from these carnivores. Coyotes will pull down the occasional elk calf and both grizzly and black bears prey on young calves during the spring, but for the most part, elk were not the primary target of a large carnivore day after day.

Most scientists agree that elk in Yellowstone were overabundant in 1995. The land just flat couldn’t take any more hungry elk mouths.

“Probably fewer elk right now is not a bad thing,” said Doug Smith, who is the wolf project leader for Yellowstone. “It’s probably in terms of ecosystem diversity, a good thing and I shy away from saying that sometimes, but that is the reality of it. We were pushing up against the upper limits of what this system could support in elk numbers so a decline for whatever reason at least now is not a bad thing.”

By 2011, elk numbers dropped, and part of that is due to wolves. Today’s Yellowstone elk realize that there’s a new predator in town and act accordingly. While some scientists feel that it took a while for elk to adjust to wolves after the reintroduction, and that the first wolves found elk to be easy pickings, Smith feels otherwise.

“I think they were instantly wiser,” said Smith. “I think they knew how to deal with a wolf right away, these prey. They knew what to do when they saw them.

“If there’s anything that is starting to approach a new rule of ecology it is that the predator impacts on prey aren’t so much determined by what predator is preying on them, it’s how many predators are preying on them,” said Smith. “If you have just wolves preying on elk or just grizzly bears, or just cougars, that seems to have little to no effect on the predator prey population, but as soon as you start adding predators you know, humans included, the prey population will be at a lower density. And we have six predators, two bear species, coyotes, wolves, cougars and humans.”

Different Perspectives Cause Controversy

Hunting, which is vitally important to the economies of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, is an important management tool for wildlife populations. In these states, the wolf reintroduction is very controversial because some hunters feel that wolves will abnormally suppress elk populations to the detriment of local economies. Others feel that the wolf will get the elk numbers down to a reasonable carrying capacity and the loss in hunting opportunity will be more than made up by the amount of money being brought into local economies by wolf watchers. Moreover, they feel that wolves will make the elk herds healthier. The average age of a cow elk taken down by wolves is fourteen, which is very old in elk years. Wolves also take younger animals, while hunters generally take bulls and prime breeding-age cows.

Regardless, wolves are here to stay.

Where to See Wolves in Yellowstone

Wolves can be found throughout the park and can be seen from most of the roads in the park. Probably the best opportunity to see a wolf lies in the wildlife-rich Lamar Valley between Cooke City, Montana, and Tower in the park. This is the home range of the Druid Peak pack, which in 2000 defied nearly every notion in wolf science.

That year, “three females of the Druid Peak pack got pregnant,” said Smith. “They all had litters of seven pups. Twenty out of twenty-one of them survived. The wolves catapulted themselves from a pack of eight to a pack of thirty-eight and were quite a force to be dealt with. They were one of the largest packs ever recorded.”

The Druids, said Smith, only stayed that size for about a year. Generally, where prey is abundant, as in the Lamar Valley, wolf pack sizes can be large. As the prey gets less abundant, the pack size trends downward.

“It was too big of a pack to support, animals died and animals left to form new packs,” said Smith. Five other packs were formed when the Druid Peak pack broke up. “So it was truly a rare instance and it wasn’t sustainable and what happened was very interesting in that you had five packs formed from animals dispersing from that pack.”

Other wolves can be seen throughout the park. West of Tower in the Blacktail Plateau area is the home range of the Leopold pack, named in honor of the great naturalist Aldo Leopold. In 2002, that pack consisted of about nine wolves. Other potentially-visible wolves include the Swan Lake pack, near Gardiner, the Nez Perce pack near Old Faithful and the Cougar pack near West Yellowstone. Grand Teton National Park also has a couple of wolf packs and the surrounding national forests have several.

At the time of this writing, nearly a decade since the wolves took the first tentative steps into Yellowstone country, the wolf is alive and well. The wolf is expanding its range, and delighting visitors from around the world. Tourism has shot up and entire businesses have been founded on the concept of wolf watching. But even if you don’t go with a formal tour, you will have a good chance of seeing a wolf, a much better chance than scientists initially thought.


Writer Tom Reed is an avid outdoorsman and the author of Great Wyoming Bear Stories. He lives in southeastern Wyoming.