Marking 25 years of wolf recovery

Additional reporting by Eric Galatas, Wyoming News Service

JACKSON, Wyo. – Yellowstone is marking the 25th anniversary of the reintroduction of wolves to the national park. Officials are taking the opportunity to herald the project as a success on several fronts.

Once listed as endangered due to habitat loss and decades of extermination, the apex predator still remains a polarizing topic amongst westerners, with concerns voiced most often by ranchers and hunters.

Linda Veress, with Yellowstone National Park, says so far so good when it comes to the return of the long-lost lobo. The future of the wolf appears to be on track as a healthy, contributing member of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

For example, elk population numbers were very high at the time of reintroduction, and their overgrazing resulted in loss of willow and aspen. Wolves helped bring elk numbers back to normal levels.

“With the decrease in elk populations, the willow and aspen had a chance to rebound and recover, which also resulted in bird populations increasing,” Veress said.

After decades of habitat loss and extermination by humans, wolves vanished from their historic territory. Wolves were placed on the Endangered Species List in 1973, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated Greater Yellowstone as a key recovery area.

From 1995-97, 41 wild wolves from Canada and Montana were released into the park. The program has been controversial, with hunters concerned about loss of game and ranchers concerned about the safety of livestock.

Detractors also point to the particular species of wolf being a bigger version than what was historically seen in Wyoming. Wildlife managers say the Canadian ‘superwolf’ theory is just that…a theory.

Retired USFWS biologist Mike Jimenez, who served on the wolf recovery program, says it’s a weak argument. Genetics of various wolf species—whether Mexican lobos or Arctic wolves—are constantly changing. Another wildlife biologist on the recovery team, Carter Niemeyer, says genetics show it is basically the same wolf that once roamed the Rockies; same size, same weight.

Wolves in Crystal Bench Pen get acclimated while awaiting release. Photo: NPS

When wolves were first introduced, elk killing, in particular, bordered on massacre. Experts point out, however, the elk population was unhealthy and overbred. Once a better balance was achieved and elk adjusted to having an age-old predator on the landscape again, things came more into alignment. Wolves began having smaller litters, wolf-on-wolf mortality is decreasing, and the elk population is now flourishing.

According to the group Defenders of Wildlife, elk populations across Wyoming have gone up in the past 25 years, and just one tenth of one percent of livestock numbers have been lost since the reintroduction. Wolf numbers have climbed as well. Veress says as of December 2018 there were some 80 wolves in nine packs in the park, which she says is a stable population.

“The number one cause of mortality in wolves in the park are by other wolves, just in competition for food and for territory,” Veress said.

Park officials have several events planned to commemorate the 25th anniversary, notably a weekly series of live broadcasts on Facebook starting in March. Experts will cover topics including the ecological role of wolves in the ecosystem, the global impact of reintroduction and the future relationship between wolves and people.

Learn more about wolves here.

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