Reclining but alert, a gray wolf lies in new-fallen snow in the International Wolf Center’s live
enclosure. The institution promotes knowledge about wolves’ ecology and their relationship with
humans and the land.
A short Article from National Geographic
For thousands of years wolves were the second most widespread land mammals, after people.
From the high Arctic to Mexico, their strength, intelligence, and coordinated pack behavior made
them extremely successful predators—and humans’ strongest competition for meat.
As Americans’ dependence on livestock grew, so did their dislike of the herd-raiding wolf. War
was waged on the species for more than 300 years, and by the early 20th century, the wolf was
nearly gone in most parts of the United States, including Yellowstone National Park.
In 1974, when it was believed to be facing extinction south of Canada, Canis lupus won protection
under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Since then public support for the wolf has steadily
grown, and it has become a symbol of wildlife in peril.
In the mid-1990s, more than 60 years since the last gray wolf was eradicated in Yellowstone
National Park, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided it was time to bring the wolf back.
Biologists traveled to Canada, where the species is still abundant, to trap several animals for
relocation. A total of 31 wolves were transplanted to Yellowstone, where they were held for eight
to ten weeks in temporary outdoor pens.
In 1995, 14 wolves were released, and one year later another 17—including the Druid Peak five
featured in Return of the Wolf—were set free.
The wolves have settled in well, forming packs and producing offspring. Today there are roughly
120 wolves in the Yellowstone ecosystem, thrilling visitors and helping to return the park to its
The plan to reintroduce gray wolves into Yellowstone did not go without opposition. Many
ranchers were not supportive, fearful that their livelihoods would be in jeopardy from the
The reintroduction plan won support, but not without some compromises. Defenders of Wildlife, a
private conservation group, promised to compensate ranchers who lost livestock to wolves, and
the federal government ruled that ranchers could kill wolves caught attacking their animals.
Both ranchers and environmentalists, who feared that the compromises would put the wolves in
danger, challenged the reintroduction in court. A judge agreed with the arguments and ruled the
plan illegal. In December 1997 he ordered the wolves’ removal from the park, but stayed the
order pending an appeal. And in January 2000 a Denver, Colorado, district court overturned the
order, allowing the wolves to stay in Yellowstone
The gray wolves profiled in Return of the Wolf made up the Druid Peak pack, one of about 14 in
the park today. Originally trapped in Canada, the five wolves formed a new pack in captivity and
then were released into the Lamar Valley in northeastern Yellowstone.
To avoid emotional attachment, biologists do not give names to the wolves, only numbers. Each is
outfitted with a radio collar that tracks their location.
The alpha female of the Druid Peak pack, Wolf 40 rules with an iron paw. Suspected of chasing off
her mother, Wolf 39, and sister, Wolf 41, she is also believed to have killed some of her sisters’
pups. One sister, 42, remains in the pack, and the two are constantly at odds.
Nicknamed “Cinderella” by the Yellowstone researchers, Wolf 42 is the beta female in the group.
Speed and keen hunting abilities have kept her in the pack, but her alpha sister’s impatience with
her is growing, and 42’s position is precarious.
Project Leader, Yellowstone Gray Wolf Restoration Project
National Park Service biologist Douglas W. Smith has worked with and studied wolves for more
than 20 years. He has observed the Druid Peak pack since their release in 1996.
The decision to return wolves to Yellowstone was a controversial one. What is the debate about?
Wolves are a threat to ranchers’ livelihood. Predators cause the ranchers to lose sleep. They don’
t like bears, coyotes, or cougars either, but they were already here. From their view, they already
have problems with predators, so why add another? And ranchers want to have more say
politically. They don’t want the federal government dictating what is happening on their own land.
How much of the controversy do you attribute to the psychological fear of wolves?
The mythology of wolves is certainly greater than the reality. While people still think of wolves in
terms of Little Red Riding Hood, that’s just not a comparison that is appropriate today. Wolves are
afraid of people. The wolves are a symbol of evil in our culture, and that has hurt them immensely.
We literally wiped out wolves worldwide, when once they were one of the most widely distributed
species on Earth. Now we’re trying to right some longstanding wrongs in nature.
It’s important to know that wolves are not being reintroduced everywhere, only in wilderness
areas. There have been hundreds of years of mistaken views of wolves, and it will take many
years to educate people as to what they are really like.
Won’t a rancher who has lost livestock feel an impact financially?
Yes, but too many times when a rancher loses one of his herd, it’s blamed on wolves. However,
there are a lot of predators—bears, coyotes, cougars. Or an animal might just disappear; perhaps
a cow or sheep fell down a ravine and was lost. There is plenty for the wolves to eat. The elk and
deer populations are now restored from near decimation at the turn of the century. They don’t
have to feed on livestock.
Are ranchers the only ones opposed to the recovery project?
No, there is also opposition from hunters who don’t want to compete with wolves for the deer and
elk populations. Of course, in Yellowstone hunting isn’t allowed. So hunting doesn’t help thin the
herd populations here. We’ve done such a good job of restoring the elk and deer that keeping
the herds from getting too large has been an issue.
Was the Druid Peak group an existing pack, or did the wolves form one at the park?
They became a pack. We found packs in Canada that Canadian biologists had been tracking and
tried to capture the dominant males and females. We were not able to capture an entire pack; we
got parts of packs. The Druid pack in the film was originally an alpha female and her three pups
from one pack and an alpha male from another pack. They got together while in captivity and
became a pack there.
In human terms the relationship between the alpha female in the Druid Peak pack and her sister
seems so brutal. Is that typical wolf behavior?
Yes. In wolf society that’s just the way it goes. No wolf is ever equal. If you can get the upper
hand, you will.
What surprised you the most during the restoration project?
I think the most unexpected thing was that the wolves actually stayed in Yellowstone. They
reproduced, and their mortality is very low. We expected more problems. We expected them to try
to return to Canada, and, in the process, get killed. We expected to take more trips back to
Canada to capture more wolves, but as it turned out, that wasn’t necessary.
What was the most difficult part of the reintroduction project?
The hardest thing was the court case, having to defend our plan to bring back the wolves. The
other hard thing was the illegal killing or poaching of wolves that have left the park. That was a
big setback. We lost key individuals.
hat do you feel people need to know about wolves?
That they are not wanton, bloodthirsty killers. They are a part of nature, like other animals. What’s
important to know about recovery is that wolves are the top carnivores in the North American
ecosystem. Having them back means the U.S. ecosystem is complete. Without them it’s not. There
are very few ecosystems left that are considered intact. Yellowstone is the largest temperate-
zone ecosystem in the world, and it was missing its top carnivore. Now it’s complete.
|click here to see the works of Jim and
Jamie Dutcher who lived with 6 wolves
called the Sawtooth pack