It was a frigid January day a decade ago when the first gray wolves bolted out of crates and into the wilds of Idaho.
The event was cheered by environmentalists, who had once wondered if they would ever see wolves reintroduced into the Northern Rockies, and decried by ranchers and others who had hoped it would never happen.
Ten years later, passions still run deep. The wolves’ incredible recovery and expansion in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming have ensured that.
Ranchers worry about livestock being attacked. Hunting organizers worry the wolves are decimating elk herds and threatening their livelihood.
Environmental, economic benefits
Conservationists acknowledge problems but say wolves haven’t been the scourge some predicted. They say wolves have helped the ecology of the greater Yellowstone area and economies of communities around Yellowstone National Park, where wolves also were reintroduced and are now a major attraction.
Some conservationists say the true measure of success will come when the wolves are taken off the list of animals protected by the Endangered Species Act, a move that, despite the wolves’ having already achieved recovery goals, could be years away because of litigation.
“The book needs to be closed in order for us to say that the Endangered Species Act is doing its job and that wolf restoration is a complete success,” said Jon Schwedler, a spokesman for the Predator Conservation Alliance in Bozeman, Mont.
Wolves in the region gained protection under the act in 1974, after being essentially wiped out in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana earlier in the century. But in the 1980s, a small number migrated naturally into Glacier National Park from Canada.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in a 1987 plan, proposed reintroducing an “experimental” population in Yellowstone. After years of debate, the government decided in the early 1990s to reintroduce wolves to the park and parts of central Idaho.
Ranchers were firmly opposed, worried how the predators would affect their livelihoods.
“When they’re killing a calf, they’re not as warm and fuzzy as they’re portrayed,” said Jake Cummins, executive vice president of the Montana Farm Bureau Federation.
On Jan. 14, 1995, the first gray wolves were released in Idaho. Wolves bound for Yellowstone stayed in “acclimation pens” for two months before their release in March 1995, in hopes new packs would bond and the wolves would accept their surroundings as home turf.
The next year, 37 more wolves were reintroduced. Federal wildlife officials had expected to reintroduce animals for five years but stopped after two because the population was growing on its own.
Coexistence between ranchers and wolves has sometimes been uneasy. The Defenders of Wildlife pays compensation for confirmed losses and offers assistance with nonlethal measures to help keep wolves from livestock. But farm leaders say it’s often difficult to prove losses and that little short of a shotgun will keep wolves from returning.
According to the government, 278 cattle and nearly 800 sheep were confirmed killed by wolves in the three states from 1995 to 2003. Meanwhile, 201 “problem” wolves also were killed, most by government agents.
Gray wolves reached recovery goals in 2002; an estimated 825 or more wolves live in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Before the government can propose that wolves in the Northern Rockies be delisted, each of the three states must have approved management plans.
The agency approved plans by Montana and Idaho last year, but rejected Wyoming’s, which would have allowed wolves to be shot with little restriction in parts of that state. Wyoming is suing over the rejection.
With delisting delayed, the government has given Montana and Idaho more leeway in handling wolves in the interim. Ranchers there will be able to kill wolves without prior written approval if they can prove the animals are harassing livestock. Wolf kills still must be backed by physical evidence, such as bitten livestock or broken fences.
Looking back, those on all sides of the debate say emotions are still strong.
Maury Jones, an outfitter in western Wyoming, said he wishes reintroduction never happened, and swears it will be the “greatest wildlife disaster ever seen.”
But Doug Smith, the Yellowstone wolf project leader, said the reintroduction has been a scientist’s dream, providing an opportunity to compare an ecosystem with and without a key predator.
“It’s one of the major conservation efforts of the 20th century, and to be there and watch the population grow and study it — it’s one of the most exciting things that’s happened to me,” he said.