Twenty-five years ago, wildlife managers in Yellowstone National Park undertook one of the most consequential actions in modern American conservation when they unleashed 14 wolves into the park.
The program to reintroduce wolves to Yellowstone in 1995 has since seen wolf packs fan out across one of the largest intact ecosystems in the Lower 48. Reintroducing an apex predator that humans wiped out earlier in the century has had consequences both intended and unintended. It was—and continues to be—wildly controversial but also 100% right. Ecosystems have flourished under a newly found balance; tourists have come to catch a glimpse of animals no longer found in many other states; and scientists have had a chance to observe an unprecedented experiment in rewilding.
“We’ve learned from them,” said Yellowstone National Park biologist Doug Smith. “All of nature is worthy of our care and attention, and wolves are the flagship species that a human dominated world almost did in. Respecting them and allowing them to exist is very important for us as well as for them. ”
Wolves are one of the most adaptable creatures on Earth. Their range once included all of Europe, the majority of North America and Asia, and even parts of the Middle East. They can make do in some of the hottest, coldest, wettest, and driest places on Earth. Their ability to find a niche and fill it often puts them in a role keystone species; their presence (or absence) dictates the fate of other animals and even plants in many places around the globe.
Despite that—or perhaps because of it—humans have not been kind to wolves. In the western world, we’ve been conditioned to fear them since childhood through fairy tales from Little Red Riding Hood to the Three Little Pigs.They’ve been shot, poisoned, and forced from their traditional range, which humanity has then, in many cases, turned over to crops or livestock.
Yellowstone stands as a somewhat odd case. The park was set aside in 1872 and came under the National Park Service when the agency was created in 1916 to (emphasis added) “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” Except, it seems, for the wolves. The U.S. government’s war against the toothsome canines raged inside the park’s border until they were essentially wiped out in 1926.