Yellowstone’s wolves defied extinction, but face new threats beyond park’s borders

Yellowstone’s wolves defied extinction, but face new threats beyond park’s borders

In January 2022, I saw my first wild wolf. Even growing up in Idaho, a wolf sighting is rare, and I had never seen one. But from afar, I watched as the world’s largest canine predators resurfaced a conflicting, age-old reputation, one that had dogged them since the time when they were far more common in the U.S. West. Many ranchers have long seen them as only a menace, and some hunters argued that they deplete populations of elk and other game species. Still, most scientists agree they benefit the ecosystem by keeping the elk population under control and acting as a natural apex predator.

When I looked out the window of the snow coach, a bus equipped with skis instead of tires, driving slowly along the road to Madison Junction, the first village inside Yellowstone’s west entrance, I didn’t see a fairy-tale villain or a conservation statistic. Instead, surveying us serenely from a meadow stood an animal that looked as much a part of the natural landscape as the nearby bison or the lingering steam from the geyser basin. The wolf was home. Whether it would be left in peace, however, was an old question with new implications stemming from measures like a recently passed hunting law that allowed the nearly unrestrained killing of the still-recovering species.

By 2021, the number of wolves in Idaho, which shares part of Yellowstone National Park with Wyoming and Montana, had risen higher than it had in decades. However, as the number of wolves increased, so did the strength of the reaction against them.

For several centuries, hunters and trappers had killed wolves so indiscriminately that they’d been wiped out throughout much of their historical range. By the end of the 20th century, a region once home to as many as 2 million wolves found itself with none.

In 1995, scientists released 15 wolves into Yellowstone National Park and just across the national park border in central Idaho, then another 20 in 1996. Soon, pack numbers began to climb. By 2021, Idaho alone had around 1,500 wolves, according to the state’s fish and wildlife service. The North American gray wolf (Canis lupus), it seemed, had managed to bounce back to once again take its place in the menagerie of the continent’s large mammals.

Lead Image: A gray wolf in Yellowstone National Park. Image by Cathy via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

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