The Reintroduction of Wolves to Yellowstone National Park

Reintroducing gray wolves to Yellowstone is a controversial subject: environmentalists, livestock producers, and big-game hunters don't see eye-to-eye.


| September/October 1990



125-036-01

An average pack has six to eight wolves—usually the alpha (dominant) couple, their pups, those pups' adult siblings and, occasionally, unrelated others.


PHOTO: JIM BRANDENBURG

The Chico Hot Springs Hotel is the social hub of Pray, Montana, which lies just outside Yellowstone National Park. When I checked and mentioned to the desk clerk that I had come to look in on the controversial proposal to return the gray wolf to the park, he remarked that a big gray had been run down recently on an adjacent road. The consensus among the loungers in the lobby seemed to be that the casualty wandered off from the E. H. McCleery Foundation, a spacious private refuge for some 80 wolves just over in Emigrant.

Like most Americans, I'd never had an unbarred glimpse of a wolf. So I called Jack Lynch, the foundation's director, to see if I could at least have a long-distance view of his wild charges.

Within the first minutes on the phone with Mrs. Lynch, who answered, I learned that if there's one thing she and her husband hate, it's the project for the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone. They know that some animals will stray from the safety of the park and be slaughtered by a citizentry conditioned to regard them as evil incarnate.

Next, the Lynches hate journalists. "You people know nothing about wolves!" Mrs. Lynch said. "You think they should be preserved just so you can hear a wolf song!" I had to admit I would like to, but asked if I could come by and see her pack anyway. "We're working on our perimeter fences—you don't even know what that means—and we don't have time to waste," she said, her voice rising. "My hands are dripping with blood! I have hungry wolves to feed!" Then she hung up.

I retreated to the game-oriented ambience of the Chico bar. There I learned that, unlike Mrs. Lynch, most of those opposed to the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone are not concerned about the wolves' welfare. As far as the stockgrowers and big-game outfitters are concerned, returning the top predator of the hoofed to a region famed for sheep and cattle ranching and deer, elk and moose hunting is nothing short of inviting economic disaster. A rancher who runs cattle near Red Lodge, over by the park's northeast corner, said he was too busy dealing with bears to worry about wolves yet, "but if I had sheep—wolves are hell on sheep—I'd go crazy over this Yellowstone thing." Through the darkening saloon window, I made out a bumper sticker: DID A WOLF GET YOUR DEER?

That the wolf evokes strong feelings out West, one way or the other, is understandable, considering its carnivorous history there. For all but the most recent fraction of the past 15 million years, packs of wolves roamed the Yellowstone region where a few now live behind fences. By the 1930s, cowboys, hunters and rangers had almost entirely eradicated their major competitor for red meat from this and 99% of its other U.S. territory. The odd wolf is still occasionally spotted in northern Michigan, Wisconsin, Idaho and Montana, but the only sizable populations aside from Alaska's are either "threatened," like the 1,200 wolves in northern Minnesota, or "endangered," like the dozen on Lake Superior's Isle Royale.





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