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Wolf population has returned to Yellowstone

By Blane Klemek

Some of you are aware of the reintroduction of the gray wolf to Yellowstone National Park. However, you may not be aware that the last known wolf to live and hunt in Yellowstone was in 1926. There hasn’t been any history of wolves in this nation’s first national park since the 1930s. Dr. Douglas Smith, a wildlife biologist, is largely credited with bringing the gray wolf back to the park.

The Yellowstone Wolf Recovery Program has been a successful yet highly controversial story. In spite of approximately 50 percent local opposition (but with the support of The Endangered Species Act and 80 percent of the American general public) the gray wolf is hunting once again throughout its historic range and hunting elk, deer, moose, and bison just as they have always done.

According to Dr. Smith, wolves have ventured into the park all on their own from Canada. The first breeding pair was observed in 1986. But if wolves were to flourish within the park boundaries and the surrounding national forests, they would have to be reintroduced — and not just a couple of wolves at a time.

The irony of the program, as Smith has pointed out, is that it was the federal government that eliminated the wolf from the West and, some 70 years later, that same government was putting the wolf back. Times and attitudes about the wolf have changed.

Even so, the reintroduction of the gray wolf to Yellowstone did not occur overnight. If not for the concerted efforts of citizens and environmental groups, the idea might have died long ago. In fact, the process took twenty years. And when the wolf was brought back into the park in 1995, it was a monumental day indeed.

A total of 66 wolves were captured in both Alberta and British Columbia and transported to the United States; 35 were taken to Idaho and 31 to Yellowstone. Once there, the plan was to release the captured wolves at different and scattered locations.

However, before the wolves were released they were kept inside outdoor pens near the release sites. It was believed that penning the wolves for a period of time to assist in acclimating them to their new home prior to their release would increase the chances the wolves would remain in the park. It was a hedge that worked.

Thirteen release sites were chosen within the park and on that March day in 1995, the gates of the pens were opened. But an unusual thing happened. The wolves didn’t leave. Not one wolf walked through the pens’ gates. The perplexed biologists then cut holes in the fences to encourage the wolves’ departure and, in due time, the animals at last left.

Yellowstone’s wolf population has declined dramatically since 2007 when the population was 171 in 19 packs. As of December 2014, the population was at 104 in 11 packs.

With such a rich prey-base that Yellowstone provides, especially elk, one may think that the wolf population would swell exponentially. But since wolves are self-regulating, meaning, because of their low tolerance toward each other and, specifically, other packs, they help to keep their own population in check. And given the fact that the Yellowstone wilderness is not, by a long shot, endless in size (it is surrounded by rangelands) the likelihood of an overabundance of wolves occurring is remote at best.

Indeed, the gray wolf is back in Yellowstone. Packs are hunting once again, pups are being taught how to hunt and kill elk and other wild prey, and Yellowstone’s plant life has responded because herbivores like elk are no longer overabundant. The wolf, once missing but once abundant, has returned. They have returned to a wilderness alongside the grizzly bear and bison. Their howls and tracks in the snow, missing for so many years, are back. And the ultimate goal, as stated by Smith, has become a reality as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.