The Anticipated Reintroduction
Editor’s Note: This article was written by Heath Hornecker, who was a high school student in 1995. It was originally printed in Volume 13, Issue 3 of CaTracks, the Douglas High School newspaper, on Feb. 16, 1995.
The long, low, eerie sound of a wolf howling was heard for the last time over 60 years ago in Yellowstone National Park. The wolf, which has roamed the continent for thousands of years, was brought to the brink of extinction by the mid-1930s. The wolf was ordered to be killed after the animal had proved to be a nuisance.
Now, officials are trying to make history, correcting what some people say to be the largest environmental and ecological mistake in Yellowstone this century. A combined effort of environmental groups and the government are trying to create new wolf populations in Yellowstone and central Idaho.
The Endangered Species Act of 1973 orders all federal agencies to seek the conservation of all endangered and threatened species. Under pressure from environmentalists, the government is starting to take action.
Working with Canadian officials, the U.S. government is transplanting wolves from Canada into recovery areas in central Idaho and Yellowstone. A total of 30 wolves will be transplanted, 15 in Idaho and 15 in Yellowstone. For the next five years, 15 wolves will be transplanted a year into each area. Over this period of time, officials hope to reach their goal of establishing 10 individual packs of seven or eight wolves within each region.
At the present time, the wolves to be reintroduced in Yellowstone are waiting to be released in three temporary holding pens within Yellowstone. The wolves will be released into the wild in mid-February. Wolves in Idaho, however, have been released into the wild already because of the remote areas.
The conservationist group The Defenders of Wildlife has been one of the forerunners in supporting the reintroduction of the wolf.
President of the conservationist group Rodger Schlickeisen said, “The return of the wolf to its historic habitat is a homecoming for all American.”
The wolf is the only mammal not presently living in Yellowstone that was there when the park was established in 1872.
The new recovery plan is receiving much opposition, especially from people in the agricultural community. Their main concerns bring up the fact that wolves will not stay inside Yellowstone’s boundaries and will threaten livestock in the surrounding areas.
“I feel that there is a pretty good chance that wolves could set up packs outside of the park this year,” commented Wildlife Biologist Tom Ryder of the Wyoming Game and Fish.
Under the proposed plan, all of Wyoming, parts of Montana and parts of Idaho are listed as experimental recovery areas for the wolf.
“The wolf won’t stay inside Yellowstone. That’s why these areas are listed as recovery areas,” says Ryder. “This designation allows the government more flexibility in controlling the population of the wolf outside the park.”
Wolves have been known to travel up to 550 miles from their home territory. Viable wolf habitat stretches for hundreds of miles surrounding the park, which includes many ranching areas.
Rick Allen, a rancher near Lander, relies on leases on National Forest ground to summer his cattle. These leases are in the Wind River Mountains and are located only 160 miles from the center of Yellowstone.
“We already have enough problems with mountain lions and coyotes without adding to the problem,” says Allen, referring to livestock losses due to predators.
The proposed reintroduction plans do recognize the possibility of wolves preying upon livestock. An added provision under the proposal allows ranchers to kill wolves that are witnessed killing livestock on private lands within the designated recovery areas. The rancher would have to report the incident within 48 hours and provide visible proof that the wolf was killing livestock.
“I feel the plan will be hard to administer and hard to provide evidence. I don’t have someone watching the cows all the time and might not be able to prove it was a wolf that killed it,” commented Allen.
The Defenders of Wildlife also recognize the possible threat upon ranchers. The group has started a $100,000 compensation fund for ranchers with verified livestock losses due to wolves. The group’s goal is to shift the economic responsibility for wolf recovery away from the rancher. The plan would reimburse ranchers the market value of the animal based upon local auction prices.
In an effort to half the reintroduction, the American Farm Bureau filed a lawsuit against Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“We filed suit on the grounds that we believe that there are wolves already there. If they’re there, they can’t reintroduce an experimental population. It violates the Endangered Species Act,” stated Rick Krause, attorney for the American Farm Bureau.
Federal Judge William Downes of the District Court in Cheyenne, however, denied a preliminary injunction that would have stopped the reintroduction. The Farm Bureau will try to appeal the judge’s decision and will go to court on Feb. 28.
“If we win our appeal, the reintroduction will stop, and if we win our case, we expect the government to take out the wolves that have already been transplanted,” said Krause.
Heated discussion has brought the consideration that wolves may already be in Yellowstone and surrounding areas. Surveys done of the Jackson, Dubois and Cody areas by government officials have shown no wolf populations exist. An occasional stray from northern Montana may prove occasional wolf and track sightings true.
Wolf experts also are aware of the possibility of wolves reinstating themselves. These wolves will either come from wolves that are presently in Yellowstone or from wolves that could migrate down the Rocky Mountains from Montana or Canada.
“The possibility is there but could take up to 60 years for the wolf to recover on its own,” said Hayes [one such expert]. “The Endangered Species Act calls for recovery of the wolf sooner than that.”
Another concern for the public is the money being spent on the reintroduction.
“There are many more important areas we could put our money into,” said Allen.
The recovery plan will cost an estimated $7 million of taxpayers’ money.
It is now just a matter of waiting before the wolves will be released into the wild. People from across the nation are waiting to hear the sound of a wolf howling again.
Schlickeisen stated that, even for those who may never get to the park, “that the howl of the wolf is synonymous with the call of the wild. Putting wolves back into Yellowstone is like putting the ‘wild’ back into the wilderness.”
For others near the park, putting the wolf back in Yellowstone will be like putting a killer back on the streets.