Thousands of gray wolves once ranged throughout the Northern Rockies, but were aggressively eliminated by the 1930s. Government-sponsored predator control programs initiated in the 1880s, supported by a society that largely viewed wolves with ignorance and fear, resulted in the near extermination of wolves from the Lower 48.
Even the majestic Yellowstone National Park—America’s first and most famous national park—could not serve to protect this maligned species, with the last of Yellowstone’s wolves killed in 1926.
It wasn’t until almost 50 years later that wolves became one of the first species listed under the Endangered Species Act, thus setting the stage for wolf recovery. Today, wolves once again roam the Northern Rockies, though their future remains uncertain.
Read Defenders' award-winning publication, Places for Wolves, to learn more about wolf recovery strategies for the Northern Rockies and other places in their historical range.
Restoring Wolves to the Northern Rockies
The return of wolves to the Northern Rockies was initiated by animals seeking new territory from the north. Wolves from Canada began to recolonize northwestern Montana by the late 1970s, and the first litter of pups to be born in this region in half a century was documented at Glacier National Park in 1986.
A year later, Defenders began to compensate Montana ranchers for verified livestock losses to wolves in a proactive effort to appease concerns about wolf depredation (see Northern Rockies Wolf Chronology).
The wolf population continued to expand, and by 2007, the Northwest Montana Recovery Area supported an estimated 230 wolves and 23 breeding pairs. Although population growth in northwestern Montana has been highly unstable due to extensive lethal management and illegal killing of animals (read Montana Gray Wolf Conservation and Management 2006 Annual Report). In 2008, the population did not increase. Montana is planning to host a wolf hunting season once wolves are removed from the endangered species list (see their draft wolf hunting regulations).
Yellowstone National Park
Meanwhile, efforts to restore wolves to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho date back more than three decades, when Defenders and other concerned parties began to actively pursue their recovery.
The Endangered Species Act requires the FWS to prepare recovery plans for threatened and endangered species. In 1987, the FWS approved a revised Rocky Mountain Wolf Recovery Plan that established three official wolf recovery areas in the Northern Rockies: northwestern Montana (discussed above), central Idaho, and the Yellowstone ecosystem.
Although lone wolves had occasionally been sighted in the latter two areas, no evidence of breeding populations had been documented. Thus, in June 1994, after several years of intense political and legal activity, the FWS issued a Final Environmental Impact Statement to reintroduce wolves to central Idaho and Yellowstone. The reintroduction was officially approved after a year of public hearings and an unprecedented show of support from more than 100,000 impassioned Americans.
Despite attempts by the American Farm Bureau Federation to block wolf reintroduction through the courts, 29 Canadian wolves were successfully reintroduced to Yellowstone and central Idaho in 1995.
But even as the national spotlight shined on these pioneer wolves, anti-wolf factions continued to undermine the government’s wolf recovery efforts, and sympathetic members of Congress ultimately withdrew Federal funding before the second phase of the reintroduction was complete.
Fortunately, private donations from the American public—channeled through Defenders of Wildlife and other wolf advocacy organizations—enabled reintroduction to move forward in 1996. An additional 37 animals were released the next year, and wolves soon began mate and bear young in their newly established home.
As of the end of 2007, 830 wolves wandered the wilds of central Idaho (PDF map), and another 453 inhabited the Greater Yellowstone Recovery Area (PDF) —with 11 packs (PDF) residing within Yellowstone National Park (see territory map).
In January 2008, a radio-collared wolf from Idaho was confirmed to be living in northeast Oregon (see our press release). In July 2008, the first known wolf pack in Washington state in nearly 70 years was documented near Methow. And in Colorado, biologists found a wolf track (see the news story) in Rocky Mountain National Park, demonstrating that wolves are continuing to expand into new portions of their historic range.
Download a copy of the FWS Rocky Mountain Wolf Recovery 2007 Interagency Annual Report, and view tables and maps showing 2007 wolf pack and population data for the Northern Rockies.
Ecological Benefits of Wolf Recovery
After decades without wolves, the Northern Rockies are once again reaping the ecological benefits of a thriving wolf population. As a native top predator, the wolf plays a pivotal role in maintaining healthy ecosystems.
The return of wolves to Yellowstone, for example, is helping restore the diversity of life within the park's ecosystem. Elk, an important prey species, have altered their grazing behavior now that wolves are once again on the prowl—elk herds can no longer linger in open meadows and wetlands since wolves use these open meadows for hunting.
Changes in elk grazing behavior have allowed streambed vegetation like willow and aspen to recover from years of overbrowsing, and these re-established trees provide habitat for native birds and fish, beaver, and other species.
Indeed, the enduring health and stability of the Northern Rockies’ wolf population has ecological ramifications both within and well beyond the immediate region. As wolves continue to breed and disperse, this population represents a potential source of individuals to recolonize native wolf habitat in the Southern Rockies where there are currently no known breeding populations of wolves, and the Pacific West, where the first recolonizing wolf packs were documented in July 2008(see dispersal map below).
Financial Benefits of Wolf Recovery
In addition to having profound ecological effects, wolf restoration has benefited local economies in the Northern Rockies (read Wolves and People in Yellowstone: Impacts on the Regional Economy).
Gateway communities near Yellowstone National Park have reported an economic boon from the return of the wolf. In fact, more than 150,000 people visit Yellowstone each year specifically because of wolves, bringing $35 million in annual tourist revenue to Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. The economic impact of this figure effectively doubles once money filters through local communities.
And of course, the recreational, spiritual, and aesthetic benefits of wolf recovery to the American people—whose support and commitment brought wolves back to their rightful place on the Northern Rocky landscape—are invaluable.
Meeting the Challenges
Although wolves in the Northern Rockies provide clear benefits to both natural and human communities, wolf recovery continues to experience vocal opposition from some hunters and livestock producers.
The concerns put forth by these constituencies are primarily rooted in anti-wolf values versus on-the-ground reality. There is no evidence that wolves deplete populations of elk or other game animals over extended periods of time or across large regions. In Idaho, for example, elk populations (totaling more than 120,000 elk statewide) have remained stable over the past several years, and elk hunters have reported banner years recently despite the growth of the state's wolf population (see www.idahowolves.org).
Unlike wolves, which tend to pursue injured and weak animals, hunters typically target animals in prime reproductive condition—thus having greater potential to reduce elk population growth. In fact, scientists in the western U.S. have seen declines in some elk herds where there are no wolves at all, likely due to stress caused by years of drought conditions, invasive weeds that reduce native forage, and increased ATV usage in remote habitat.
Similarly, livestock losses to wolves in the Northern Rockies have been very limited, with wolf recovery having a low impact on the ranching industry overall. Wolves are responsible for less than 1% of documented annual sheep losses in Idaho, for instance; in 2006, 173 sheep were confirmed to have been killed by wolves, while thousands died of health problems, predation from coyotes and domestic dogs, harsh weather, and poisoning from ingesting toxic plants (see www.idahowolves.org).
Defenders of Wildlife recognizes the significance of those wolf conflicts that do occur, however, and established The Bailey Wildlife Foundation Wolf Compensation Trust to compensate ranchers at market value for livestock losses due to wolf predation while wolves are under Federal protection. To date, the Trust—which celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2007—has reimbursed ranchers more than $1 million in the Northern Rockies.
To further reduce conflict between imperiled predators and humans, Defenders created The Bailey Wildlife Foundation Proactive Carnivore Conservation Fund in 1998. This innovative program seeks to prevent livestock losses due to predators and predator losses due to unnecessary lethal control by advancing wildlife-friendly livestock husbandry practices.
In 2004, Defenders formed the Livestock Producer Advisory Council, made up of sheep and cattle growers, to help guide policies related to The Bailey Wildlife Foundation Wolf and Grizzly Compensation Trusts and proactive programs. Together, we have also recently published "Livestock and Wolves: A Guide to Nonlethal Tools and Methods to Reduce Conflicts" in order to help more livestock producers and agency managers reduce livestock losses to wolves.
The steps we are taking to reduce wolf-livestock conflicts, and to build tolerance among local residents living with wolves, have greatly contributed to the successful return of wolves to Yellowstone and throughout the Northern Rockies. Our members and supporters are very important partners in this effort—we thank you for helping restore and protect the future of wolves.Short URL:
Background and Recovery of Northern Rockies and Yellowstone Area Wolves
Posted on Monday, December 15, 2008 @ 23:25:17 EST in Wolves