Once exterminated from the lower 48 states, wolves have made a triumphant return to Yellowstone Park and the surrounding states. Hailed as, ‘the greatest animal conservation success in human history,’ to many others living in the areas affected, the story is dramatically different. There is a reason wolves have been, and continue to be, the world’s most controversial predator. But do they deserve a place on this landscape?
In 1995, as a result of the Endangered Species Act, wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone Park and its surrounding areas. At the center of the operation was Doug Smith, now Yellowstone’s Wolf Program leader. The wolves quickly thrived, spreading out and restoring the land to a more historic balance. Once minimum populations were reached, control of the predators would go to the states to maintain. But that all went out the window when a lengthy court dispute stalled the plan. Instead of 300 wolves, there were 1,700 when states began management. By this time, wolves had done damage to game populations, impacting outfitters, and had numerous conflicts with livestock, affecting ranchers. Bill Hoppe, a rancher/outfitter living near the park, lost 13 sheep all in one night to wolves.
In order to reduce the wolf conflicts, the states began allowing seasonal hunts. Even though quotas were high, Abby Nelson, a Montana Wolf Manager explains, wolf numbers in the area had merely stopped increasing. On the other hand, Nathan Varley, a wolf watching guide, who had seen a great economic boom due to increased tourism when the wolves returned was mourning the losses of well-known wolves killed under state management. One such park wolf, ‘The 06 Female,’ who had inspired thousands as the leader of her pack, was legally shot at the park boundary. Her death became a symbol of the state’s management, further polarizing the divide.
The hatred is enough make ranchers like Martin Davis consider leaving it all behind. To him, wolves are one last headache in a business that is already challenging enough, so why doesn’t he leave? Well, it turns out the vast wide open land allocated by ranchers is important for wolves. In fact, ranchers’ land use on such sought-after land, keeps the subdivision and development from happening which would drive wildlife out. So, if we need ranchers, and wolves back for good, maybe it’s time to look into re-organizing these ranches.
As it happens, promising new techniques were being developed nearby to foster a better harmony between people and nature. Hilary and Andrew Anderson are practicing ranching on nature’s terms, embracing its challenges, and finding some very interesting results. There is a promise of innovation, that may instead lead us backward, looking to nature to help us see more wholistic solutions. The cunning wolf, it turns out, may end up teaching us the better way forward, and with this wind in our sails, we are called to remember, that listening to those on all sides of an issue is necessary for real progress.