YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. — It's as if they were never gone and don't plan on leaving again.
On this day 10 years ago, the cages were opened for the first gray wolves in 70 years to leave their “mark” on Yellowstone National Park. And mark it they have.
From the first 66 wolves turned loose here (and in Idaho) in 1995 and 1996, there are now almost 850 animals in 93 breeding packs.
As many as 200 wolf pups could be born this spring. That'll bring the wolf population to more than a thousand. Federal officials say the next 10 years could be more critical than the last 10 in trying to find the balance where man and wolf can co-exist.
For the last decade, Ed Bangs has tried to keep that balance.
“Wolf habitat is really in the human heart and it’s going to be how many wolves people will tolerate,” says Bangs, a wolf expert at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
Rancher Marvin Davis has zero tolerance, but now there is grudging acceptance.
“They're here and we have to accept that,” says Davis.
Government sharpshooters have killed 294 wolves who have “taken” livestock, and the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife has paid 300 ranchers $500,000 for their losses.
But it's the incremental change in attitude that Suzanne Stone marvels at.
“I think most people realize that their worst fears are not coming true,” says Stone, the northern Rockies field representative for Defenders of Wildlife. “They can actually live with wolves.”
Even Yellowstone Park is adjusting. Wolves feast on elk. Less elk means more willow trees, which in turn means more beavers. Call it “wolf ecology 101.”
“Here you have the stuff that is going to be in textbooks 10 to 15 years from now,” says Yellowstone's chief biologist, Doug Smith. “It is a very rare scientific opportunity.”
It’s an opportunity to study not only the wildness of the wolf, but the tolerance of man.
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