1995 Reintroduction of Wolves in Yellowstone

Discover the history of wolves in Yellowstone, including what happened to the ecosystem when they were eradicated and when they were reintroduced Jan 12, 1995
By Tori Peglar ,

Releasing a Sawtooth wolf pup into the Nez Perce acclimation pen, February 1997. 

NPS Jim Peaco

When the long white truck drove through Roosevelt Arch on Jan. 12, 1995, it was almost like watching a modern-day Trojan horse arrive in Yellowstone.

Inside were eight gray wolves from Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada. They became the first wolves to roam Yellowstone since the 1920s when the last pack was killed. By the end of 1996, 31 wolves were relocated to the park.

Bringing back the wolves struck a nerve among ranchers along the park’s boundaries who feared the wolves would wander out of the park and kill their livestock. But wildlife biologists felt the wolves played a key role in the Yellowstone ecosystem, including controlling the elk population, which had ballooned in the wolves’ absence and wreaked havoc on the range.

Eradication of Wolves 1872-1926

When the Hayden expedition explored Yellowstone in the late 1800s, wolf packs roamed the park. But, by the end of the 1920s, gray wolves had been hunted to eradication. Wolves had been pursued with more determination than any other animal in United States history.

70 Years Later, Reintroduction of Wolves in 1995

As attitudes towards wild ecosystems changed, people began questioning whether a wolf-less Yellowstone environment was a healthy one. Once the wolves were gone, the elk population exploded and they grazed their way across the landscape killing young brush and trees. As early as the 1930s, scientists were alarmed by the degradation and were worried about erosion and plants dying off.

To protect declining species from the shortsightedness of man, the Endangered Species Act was created. In 1974 the gray wolf was added to the list.

Biologists in Yellowstone began exploring the idea of bringing Canadian wolves to the park and on January 12, 1995 the first eight wolves arrived from Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada.

Wolves have a large roaming area and a homing instinct. It was feared that the expensive, transplanted wolves would simply head north to home. To make the wolves establish a home in the park, Yellowstone built three acclimation pens to house 14 wolves for several weeks. Carcasses of elk were covertly "planted" to give wolves a taste of their new environment.

A Protected Wolf is Killed

Crossing their fingers for luck, biologists opened the pens the last week of March. As feared #10, the alpha male in the Rose Creek pack, almost immediately headed north and crossed the border to Montana. His mate, pregnant with pups, followed him soon after. On April 26, 1995 near Red Lodge, Montana, #10 was illegally shot by Chad McKittrick who received a prison sentence and fine. Fortunately, #10's mate, #9 and her eight pups were rescued and moved back into the park. This couple's blood line can be traced in the majority of the wolf packs today.

The Effects of the Reintroduction of Wolves

In the years that followed, wolves brought the elk population down and protected the open valleys from overgrazing. However, the number of elk killed was double than estimated and many local hunters stir controversy by protesting that the wolves will end up killing ALL of the elk. Today the debate is still strong. Inside the park, scientists joyously exclaim that the wolves have saved Yellowstone. Cross the park border into a gateway town and you will surely hear how wolves kill for the pleasure of killing and are terrorizing ranches and wildlife.

Read more about the environmental changes since wolves have returned and the status of Yellowstone's 10 wolf packs in 2013, and 11 wolf packs in 2014.

Photo Gallery: Remembering the First Wolves of 1995

Crystal Bench wolf acclimation pen, October 1994. 

NPS Jim Peaco

Bobsled with wolf shipping container at Crystal Bench with Mark Johnson (left), Bob Blackwell, and Wally Wines (right), January 12, 1995. 

NPS Jim Peaco

Ben Cunningham transporting Sawtooth pups, February 1997. 

NPS Jim Peaco

Doug Smith carrying a tranquilized wolf in the Rose Creek Pen, February 1997. 

NPS Jim Peaco

Park staff hauling elk carcass to Nez Perce Pen. January 1996.

NPS Jim Peaco

Wolf #9, the mother of the first pups, in the Rose Creek acclimation pen, 1995. 

NPS Barry O'Neill

Recommended: An in-depth account of the political debate and enactment of the wolf reintroduction from The Flathead Beacon: http://flatheadbeacon.com/2015/01/15/20th-anniversary-yellowstone-wolf-reintroduction-observed/