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, #9, 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, #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.
Available on Amazon: The Killing of Wolf Number Ten
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 stirred 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.
How many wolves currently live inside Yellowstone National Park? Wolf numbers have fluctuated between 83 and 123 wolves since 2009. Read more: How Many Wolves Are in Yellowstone?
Photo Gallery: Remembering the First Wolves of 1995
Recommended reading: 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/