As the gray wolf hovered on the brink of extinction a decade ago, U.S. officials embarked on a controversial plan to open the vast refuge of Yellowstone National Park to the pack-based predators in the hopes of rebuilding the species.
DENVER As the gray wolf hovered on the brink of extinction a decade ago, U.S. officials embarked on a controversial plan to open the vast refuge of Yellowstone National Park to the pack-based predators in the hopes of rebuilding the species.
Seeking to reintroduce an animal that had been an icon of the West even though it was reviled by ranchers, the Clinton administration 10 years ago this month released gray wolves imported from Canada into Yellowstone with great fanfare. The following year they introduced more into nearby Idaho.
The effort has been a resounding success. From just 14 when the program began, the population has risen to 165 wolves in 15 packs in Yellowstone, a 3,472-square-mile expanse that lies mostly in Wyoming. Including those that have migrated outside the park, their number stands at about 850.
"The area just cried out for wolves. We knew if we could just get them in they'd be successful," Ed Bangs, wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said.
Environmentalists call the gray wolf's revival in the western United States a rare success in the politically charged battles over conservation. They claim that frequently the interests of developers are favored at the urging of a solidly Republican caucus of state governors.
The key to the wolf's survival is its anchor in the safe habitat of Yellowstone -- which is bigger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined and is billed as the world's first national park. There, the only people "hunting" for it are armed with cameras and binoculars. Other species that live on lands that also play host to ranching or oil and natural gas development do not always fare as well.
Still the case for saving the gray wolf was complicated by the visceral hatred American ranchers feel for an animal they have feared since the days of the first settlers as a threat to livestock, analysts say.
The gray wolf had not been seen in the region since the 1930s, a victim of late 19th century slaughter that took its toll on a number of species including the bison.
The first year 14 gray wolves caught in Canada were taken to Yellowstone in cages and fed road kill in the early days before they gradually were allowed to roam. The next year about 50 were taken to Idaho.
The animal thrives because it lives in packs where members help each other, increasing their chance of success. Protection under the Endangered Species Act means it cannot be hunted.
But in late 1994 the real question was would the program even proceed. Lawsuits were filed as ranchers feared the great predator would attack their livestock.
Bangs said one disappointment is that the gray wolf is still listed on the Endangered Species list. For it to be delisted, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming must have wolf management plans, but Wyoming's program has been deemed inadequate in part because hunting would be allowed in certain portions of the state. The dispute remains in federal court.
Separately, the federal government has proposed delisting what is called the "eastern distinct population" of gray wolf that lives in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan.
No Home on the Range
If there is one resounding tale from the early days after settlers landed in the American West it is the rancher's antipathy to the wolf.
Ranchers feel the same way today as they did in the 19th century, according to Jeff Eisenberg, executive director of the Public Lands Council for National Cattlemen's Beef Association. "It's part of a traditional battle of ranchers seeking to work with the land to support a ranch," he said.
But programs have been developed to help ranchers, according to David Gaillard, Northern Rocky Mountain program director for the Predator Conservation Alliance. "We launched a pilot project (in which volunteers) accompany the cows as they move along their summer pastures," he said.
In January, the federal government announced it would relax rules in areas in Montana and Idaho near Yellowstone Park that would allow ranchers to kill wolves that bother livestock.
"Under he old rule it had to have its teeth in the livestock and under the new rule it can be a foot away chasing them," Bangs of the Fish and Wildlife Service said. He said only about 6 percent of wolves cause problems -- such as killing livestock -- and experts do not believe the new rules will imperil the wolf.
One big surprise from the past decade has been how visible the shy gray wolf -- which lives anywhere from the tundra in the North to as far south as Mexico -- has become.
While the gray wolf shuns humans, wolf enthusiasts have reported 150,000 sightings at Yellowstone. "For more than 1,300 consecutive days wolves have been spotted somewhere in the park," Yellowstone spokeswoman Cheryl Matthews said.