The Return of the Wolf to Yellowstone
How An Endangered Species Made a Comeback
At one time, man and wolf lived in harmony. But then things took a dark turn when the US government attempted to cause the deliberate extinction of these magnificent creatures. Read on to learn how the wolf population managed to hang on, and what we’re doing now to help them not only survive — but thrive.
In The Beginning…
Since the moment wolf first trusted man, and man first trusted wolf, many things have changed.
For centuries, the indigenous peoples of the Americas depicted the wolf in their art and stories. Most often, the painting or story displayed wolf and human joined as one powerful creature. In some legends, the wolf is given healing powers and in others the wolf saved the people from the great flood. Many Native Americans believed in man’s brotherhood with the wolf.
Not so long ago, wolves roamed nearly all of the United States. Between 250,000 and 500,000 wild wolves lived in harmony with Native Americans and the rest of the ecosystem.
By the Early 1900s, the Harmony Between Man and Wolf Changed…
A photo posted by Survival Life (@survivallife) on
Over a hundred years ago, people around the world began waging a war against the wolf. The U.S. government implemented a nationwide policy of wolf control. Wolves were seen as pests that posed a threat to the continued safety and prosperity of the American people. Theodore Roosevelt, a man widely known for his environmental activism, declared the wolf as “the beast of waste and destruction” and called for its eradication. The existence of the wolf declined dramatically between 1900 and 1920 as Congress officially sanctioned the Bureau of Biological Survey to shoot, trap and poison wolves to extinction. Their skulls and skins were piled high for victory photographs (as shown below) and to claim the bounties. Most believed they served God and the United States by ridding the countryside of such vermin.
Roy McBride stands next to six wolves killed in the Upper Flat Creek Area in 1902. Wolves were actively hunted in the Greater Yellowstone region in the early 1900’s
Even national parks such as Yellowstone National Park were included in this new act of Congress. Yellowstone was once sanctuary where wolves once roamed freely and were “protected” under the Yellowstone National Park Act of 1872, which stated that the Secretary of the Interior “shall provide against the wanton destruction of the fish and game found within said Park.” Their protection and security was now gone… as if it never existed.
Through a systematic extermination of every wolf to be found, the US government won its battle against nature. By 1960, the once populous gray wolf was essentially extinct throughout its former range.
The last 300 wolves in the lower 48 states roamed the deep woods of upper Michigan and Minnesota, only surviving by running and hiding at the first sign of humans. The wolf is the only species to be deliberately driven to the brink of extinction by humans.
The Wolf’s Triumphant Return to Yellowstone
Wolves in a temporary pen before their release into Yellowstone National Park in the mid 1990’s.
In the 1970’s, national awareness of environmental issues and consequences led to the passage of many laws designed to correct the mistakes of the past and help prevent similar mistakes in the future. One such law was the Endangered Species Act, passed in 1973. The US Fish and Wildlife Service is required by this law to restore endangered species that have been eliminated, if possible. By 1978, all wolf subspecies were on the federal list of endangered species for the lower 48 states except Minnesota. Tweets by @YellowstoneNPS
The US Fish and Wildlife Service 1987 Northern Rocky Mountain Wolf Recovery Plan proposed reintroduction of an “experimental population” of wolves into Yellowstone.
In 1991, Congress provided funds to the US Fish and Wildlife Service to prepare, in consultation with the National Park Service and the US Forest Service, an environmental impact statement (EIS) on restoration of wolves. In June 1994, after several years and a near-record number of public comments, the Secretary of the Interior signed the Record of Decision for the final EIS for reintroduction of gray wolves to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho.
In late 1994 and early 1995, and again in 1996, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and Canadian wildlife biologists captured wolves in Canada and relocated and released them in both Yellowstone and central Idaho.
A wolf being released from its cage into a temporary pen at Yellowstone National Park in 1995
The Transformation of Yellowstone
Yellowstone National Park today.
Since 1995, the wolf population of the region has quintupled and something else magical has happened. The ecosystem is thriving!
Much of what we know about the importance of wolves in maintaining the integrity of these ecosystems has come from research by Oregon State University’s Bill Ripple and his colleagues, who have been studying the ecological impacts of the wolf reintroduction.
The effects have been dramatic. Within three years of the reintroduction, coyote populations declined by 50%. The elk are back down to reasonable numbers, and more importantly, they’ve regained a healthy level of fear, avoiding high-risk areas like the sensitive stream banks. The aspens, cottonwoods and willows are all coming back, and with them, the beaver.
The restoration of the wolves and the subsequent recovery of the Yellowstone ecosystem is one of the greatest conservation success stories of all time.
The following video further demonstrates the amazing transformation of Yellowstone National Park’s ecosystem since the reintroduction of one the most magnificent creature to ever roam this earth — the wolf.
This emotionally moving documentary by National Geographic tells a story of two wolf packs living in Yellowstone today – The Druid Pack and The Rose Creek Pack.
The future of the wolf continues to be promising with each passing year. Even though the numbers of wolf packs may never be what they once were, it’s a glorious sight to see the wolf come home again.
Check out Stacy’s previous article Coyote vs. Wolf: Knowing the Difference for further information on wolves and safety measures you can take in the presence of a wolf or coyote.
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