Return of the Wolf

“It is strongly recommended that the Biological Survey continue their campaign in this region without abatement until these pests are greatly reduced in numbers.”
—Chief Naturalist Vernon Bailey, Yellowstone National Park, 1915

From today’s perspective it seems absurd to think of Yellowstone Park officials advocating the extermination of wolves, but as the statement above shows, in the early part of the 20th century it was commonplace. By 1936, wolves were effectively eliminated from the Yellowstone ecosystem. This is quite a contrast to recent efforts to reintroduce and foster wolf populations throughout the northern Rockies. Many of the concerns that fueled the extermination remain, but after a long road lined with opposition, wolves once again roam much of their historic range.

In 1995, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) reintroduced two wolf populations, one in central Idaho and one in Yellowstone. “From the beginning, our goal was to delist the wolf,” states Wolf Recovery Coordinator Ed Bangs. “Once wolf populations reach a level where the species is considered safe from extinction, the gray wolf can be removed from the Endangered Species List.”

Following the reintroduction, wolf populations grew dramatically, along with concerns from area livestock owners. Afraid that increased numbers of wolves would result in more depredations, many ranchers continued their fight against the reintroduction efforts. Their fears have been confirmed, with some livestock being killed by wolves—but these losses are far from catastrophic. Yearly, about 8,300 cattle and 13,000 sheep die from all causes. Only around 20 cattle and 50 sheep deaths each year are attributed to wolf depredation—that’s less than half a percent in each case. But while the problem is not significant industry-wide, the effects can be devastating to those hit. Ranches that experience depredation often become regular targets of problem wolves. As Ed Bangs says, “To a few livestock producers, depredation is a big deal.”

In response to concerns about wolf conflicts, Defenders of Wildlife established the Bailey Wolf Compensation Trust. The fund was established to remove the economic burden of wolves from ranchers. Since 1987, the fund has doled out over $440,000, and its continued success is a big reason that wolf opposition has lessened. A recent Defenders of Wildlife survey of compensation recipients found most were highly satisfied with the program, and 80% answered that their tolerance to wolves would be lower without the fund.

“We’re doing a lot more to work with the ranchers proactively,” adds Defenders of Wildlife’s Suzanne Stone. In addition to compensation, a quarter of a million dollars has been provided to ranchers for preventative maintenance since 1999. Also, they’ve formed The Livestock Advisory Council to effectively communicate and deal with the issues facing ranchers and wolves.

But as much as Defenders of Wildlife has done, many ranchers still feel that compensation is insufficient. When asked if compensation programs adequately offset the financial losses of depredations, Montana Stock Growers Association Vice President Bill Donald replied, “No! There is a cap on the amount paid out for each animal. This cap would not cover a loss of most seed stock producers.” He also cites negative impacts that lie outside the range of compensation programs. “There are lost grazing opportunities, lower weaning weights, lower pregnancy rates, and increased stress on not only the animals, but the livestock producer himself.”

Others in the area have experienced increased revenues because of the new wolf populations. Kevin Sanders of Bearman’s Yellowstone Outdoor Adventures comments, “Prior to the wolf reintroduction, I had basically four months to make a living. I now work more or less 12 months a year.” This is indicative of the increased visitation wolves have caused. Area hotels and restaurants are also enjoying the benefits.

Today, around 850 wolves roam the northern Rockies. The numbers have vastly exceeded wolf supporters’ hopes and expectations, but the large populations now require more management. The increase sparked efforts for delisting, but for this to occur, wolf management must first be passed from federal to state control. A new rule effective on February 7 will facilitate the switch. Ed Bangs claims that the state organizations are better equipped to handle the increased needs of the populations because they have much more manpower on an operational level.

Montana and Idaho both have approved management plans that take effect with the new rule change. Wyoming’s plan was rejected, and it remains a stumbling block to the removal of wolves from the Endangered Species List. Wyoming’s plan classifies the wolf as a predatory animal. If delisted, it will lose the protection of the Endangered Species Act, and under Wyoming law individuals could legally eradicate wolves in the same ways that led to their extirpation. As Ed Bangs notes, “You could even run one over with a snowmobile if you wanted.”

Once Wyoming presents an acceptable management plan, wolves will be one step closer to removal from the Endangered Species List. The initial goal is nearly attained, but the work will continue. State officials will try to find a balance where wolves can coexist within the ecosystem while not adversely affecting human activity and safety. But one thing is certain—the wolf has returned. Whether it struggles or thrives is dependent on the actions and attitudes of those involved. Thus far, many people have worked hard to mitigate negative factors and ensure the wolf a place in the northern Rockies. “Wolf habitat is in the human heart,” says Ed Bangs. “The issue is social carrying capacity. How many wolf problems will people tolerate?”

Common Names: Gray Wolf, Timber Wolf

Latin Name: Canis lupus

Every wonder if you’re sharing the trail with a wolf? Wolf tracks are not hard to distinguish; just follow these simple steps to find if it was indeed the elusive wolf that passed that way before you.

  • First, identify track characteristics. Wolves have four toes on their paws and a triangular heel pad. The general shape of the track is square or rectangular with the middle two toes even. The presence of claws on a track is another distinguishing characteristic of wolves.

  • Second, look at the size. Wolves have large feet in comparison to their bodies; adult tracks are normally 4½-4 ¾ inches long, measured from heel to toe.

  • Third, measure the gait, or stride length. Roughly 18-28 inches between same foot tracks is common for wolves.

Wolf tracks are commonly confused with other species, but there are some telltale signs that can prevent these mistakes. Remember that cougar tracks will show no claws, while coyote and dog tracks will be too small. Though winter is considered the best time of year for wolf tracking—fresh snow is the best surface for finding and identifying tracks—early to mid-spring can be good too. The Lamar Valley area of Yellowstone National Park is a prime spot to look for wolves, offering some of the highest wolf densities and year-round access.