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Editor's note: This is the first in a series of articles looking at the impact of reintroducing wolves in Yellowstone National Park 25 years ago.
YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK — A group of wolves from Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada, arrived at Yellowstone National Park on Jan. 12, 1995. The wolves were penned and given time to acclimate to the environment before the first of them were released on March 21, 1995.
Over the following couple of years, wolves from British Columbia and northern Montana were added, amounting to a total of 41 wolves released within the park.
Twenty-five years later, wolf reintroduction remains controversial with lasting ramifications for people, livestock and nature. Some claim wolves have effected a remarkable, almost mythical rejuvenation of the landscape; others see only an apocalypse.
Wolf biologist Dan Stahler may have said it best in a video posted on Yellowstone’s Facebook page: "There is no shortage of opinions about wolves, but there’s really no substitute for verifiable scientific data."
The purpose of this article, and others to follow, is to examine the reasons, controversies and ramifications of reintroduction. They will separate fact from fiction and reality from fable by allowing federal, state and local managers to respond to persistent claims and concerns.
Why were wolves reintroduced?
Any informed discussion about wolf reintroduction must begin with the "why?"
Predators, specifically wolves, had few advocates in the early days of land and wildlife management. For more than a century, wolves were hunted and exterminated as part of official management policy. Even the National Park Service, which is charged with preventing the wanton destruction of wildlife, participated in these predator extermination programs.
Famed artist and naturalist John James Audubon, for whom the Audubon Society was named, even advocated eradicating wolves. As a result, wolves and other predators were exterminated through much of their historic range. By the mid-1900s, wolves had been almost completely eliminated from the lower 48 states.
It wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s that public attitudes began to change. The study of and sensitivity toward environmental issues and a desire to repair the damage done to natural systems culminated in a number of policy changes as well as the creation of landmark legislation like the Endangered Species Act. By 1978, that extended at least partial endangered status to all wolf populations in the lower 48 states.
Following these changes, wildlife managers, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service were obligated to protect and restore endangered species if possible.
In another Yellowstone Facebook post, Rick McIntyre, a retired wolf interpretive ranger for Yellowstone National Park framed it this way: "In a sense, Yellowstone was a promise to the American people to preserve the natural features and wildlife of our country."
"In '95, once (wolves) were back, that was in a sense making the promise of Yellowstone, the reality of Yellowstone," he added.
Restoring wolves was thus an effort to "restore the ecosystem to what it was. And it became policy," according to Doug Smith, chief wildlife biologist for Yellowstone National Park.
In addition to law and policy requirements to restore nature, Smith also poses an ethical question: "Do we have the right to wipe out a species? The Park services said 'no.'"
So, in 1975 the effort to restore wolves began. But with reintroduction — 20 years after the process began — came consequence, questions, accusations and fears. A great deal has been learned in the 25 years since wolves were reintroduced. Let’s go through some of the most common concerns, separating fact from fiction, and what we know from what we do not know.
Claim: Yellowstone already had wolves
Probably fiction, as far as we know.
Many argue that there was already a population of wolves in the region and reintroduction was thus unnecessary and possibly detrimental. There is, however, an important nuance to this discussion. This is really a question of whether or not Greater Yellowstone was home to an established population before wolves were reintroduced by federal wildlife managers more than a question of whether wolves were ever seen or reported prior to reintroduction.
Here’s what we know for sure.
An intensive survey in the 1970s "found no evidence of a wolf population in Yellowstone." Reports or sightings of wolves infrequently persisted, though. Video of a "wolf-like canid" was captured in the Hayden Valley section of the park in August 1992, and a wolf was also shot and killed outside the park in September of the same year.
Then how do these sightings not confirm an established population of wolves in Yellowstone prior to reintroduction?
The answer to this question is perhaps best illustrated by the story of a wolf that recently captured international attention when she was spotted on the north rim of The Grand Canyon, which was the region's first wolf sighting in more 70 years. Named "Echo" by the public, this lone female wolf, collared near Cody, Wyoming, wandered a minimum of 750 miles before being mistaken for a coyote by a hunter who subsequently shot and killed her near Beaver, Utah, back in 2014.
Confirmed sightings of Echo in both Arizona and Utah are not evidence of established wolf populations in those states. Instead, her journey illustrates how wolves wander vast distances in search of food or a mate. This is the most likely explanation for wolf reports and sightings in Greater Yellowstone prior to 1995.
According to state and park wildlife managers, there were indeed a number of credible reports and sightings prior to reintroduction.
"And that makes sense, given the fact that there was a source of wolves to the north (wolves began naturally recolonizing northwestern Montana in the 1980s), especially when coupled with their dispersal behavior," said Quentin Kujala, U.S. Fish and Wildlife coordinator for Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks.
Without a 100% conclusive answer, there is certainly a temptation to fill the blanks. But given what we know about wolf behavior and their propensity to wander vast distances, sightings of individual wolves or pairs are not adequate evidence to conclude there was an established population in Greater Yellowstone prior to reintroduction in 1995.
Claim: They introduced the ‘wrong wolf’
One of the more common accusations and concerns related to wolf reintroduction is that the wolves relocated from Canada were "the wrong wolf" — larger and/or more aggressive than the "native" wolf population. Like the previous argument, there is nuance to this topic.
"Wolf taxonomy isn’t specific. Wolves move around North America," Smith said. In other words, it’s essentially impossible to separate gray wolves into isolated populations. This point is, again, clearly illustrated by that story of Echo.
Smith further explains that our system of categorizing the natural world developed by Carl Linnaeus in the 1700s is useful, but it is still an "artificial system" of classification. Adding that Linnaeus’ system "works really well until you get down to the very finest levels … of distinction. That’s the subspecies level."
"Wolves are the worst example of the subspecies concept," Smith added.
And he is not alone. A study of wolf genetics released in 2016 concluded that North America has only one species of wolf: the grey wolf. Some of the more distinct populations like red wolves reflect higher levels of coyote DNA, but genetically they are still grey wolves.
Ultimately, the concept of emerging or distinct subspecies depends on isolation from other populations. Given what we know about wolf genetics and their distribution behavior, the "wrong wolf" argument has been rather thoroughly debunked.
Smith acknowledges that the reintroduced wolves are probably a little different than the wolves that existed in the park 100 years ago because "nature is always changing." Any alleged difference is thus most likely the result of environmental factors that vary through time and from geographic area to geographic area. There is a possibility that the reintroduced wolves may have been 6-8% larger than the wolves that were eliminated from the park but, Smith adds, "That is well within the natural variation of wolf size across the continent."
This alleged difference in size is still widely perceived as evidence that the reintroduced wolves belong to a "super-sized", more aggressive subspecies. While the size can be an indicator of genetics, given what we've learned from genetic testing and wolf distribution behavior, the more likely explanation is that environmental factors affect animal size and growth. This effect has been documented in other species including polar bears, which faced the challenges of a warming climate and shorter hunting seasons, are, on average, smaller than they were 30 years ago.
Many still worry that this increased size places the reintroduced wolves at an advantage over Yellowstone’s elk.
It would seem reality isn’t without a sense of irony. As it turns out, the relocated wolves were already preying on Yellowstone elk in Canada. This will be featured more in the following article, where we’ll examine what has happened to Greater Yellowstone’s ecosystem and elk population since the reintroduction of wolves. We'll also address reintroduction's influence on safety, ranching, hunting and recreation in this series.