Yellowstone's return to the call of the wild Wolves: The northern gray wolf, reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park since January 1995, has become a symbol of the land-use battles being fought all over the American West.

December 22, 1996|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. -- In a remote corner of this vast western preserve, the five wolves of the Rose Creek pack work their way through canyons and take up their positions behind a herd of elk grazing on the valley floor.

Before first light arrives, before the stray coyotes come to scavenge, before the dedicated National Park Service biologists tracking them arise from their bunks, the wolves have silently selected an elk calf, chased it down, feasted on their kill and disappeared back into the mountains.

Wolves are back in Yellowstone.

The evidence they have been here is just the faint tick, tick, tick transmitted by their radio collars, a few paw prints in the snow and the awesome sight of the elk carcass, its bones polished white and the marrow sucked out of them.

Two years after Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt committed the Clinton administration to a course of action cheered by wildlife enthusiasts -- and denounced by ranchers in Montana and Wyoming -- 39 wolves in nine packs are roaming the back country of this 3,500-square-mile park. Another 12 are in pens, ready to be released in the spring.

Other released wolves from Alberta, Canada, are ranging free in Glacier National Park and remote wilderness in central Idaho. Last year, red wolves were reintroduced amid little fanfare in North Carolina and Tennessee. And last month, Albany, N.Y., was host of a conference on reintroducing wolves into the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York.

The wildlife science it takes to accomplish such feats turns out to be easier to handle than the political hurdles, particularly in the West. In Yellowstone, even after the National Park Service demonstrated that wolves would bring more money in the form of tourism to this job-hungry region than they would ever cost in losses to livestock, it still took 17 years to get the program off the ground.

Along the way, the northern gray wolf, Canis lupus, has become a symbol of the land-use battles being fought all over the American West as the 20th century nears its close.

On one side are the ranchers, loggers and longtime residents who ascribe to the attitudes of the "Old West."

On the other side are the millions of devotees of the "New West," mainly new arrivals to the 10 states of the mountain West, who cite quality of life issues as the reason they settled here.

Until recently, the political power belonged to the Old West. In Washington, policies ranging from the Homestead Act of 1862 to giveaways of large tracts to the railroads have long been geared toward encouraging the economic exploitation and settlement of the region that demographer Joel Garreau dubbed "The Empty Quarter."

But all this is changing.

Bill Frey, a population specialist at the University of Michigan, says that since 1970 the population of the mountain West has doubled to some 25 million.

"The 'Empty Quarter' isn't so empty anymore," Frey says. "It's filling up."

And not just with people. In Yellowstone, the vast herds of elk, bison and deer have been joined by nine wolf packs. Eight of them have an Alpha male and an Alpha female -- a breeding pair -- and are expected to den in the spring and emerge weeks later with pups.

"A given pack will produce six pups every year," says L. David XTC Mech, the government biologist considered the dean of wolf experts.

"They grow fast, too. Within six months, they are adult-sized -- and within a year they begin dispersing out of the pack."

This is precisely what concerns the local ranchers, who find it galling to see their tax dollars used to bring back the very predator their grandfathers cleared off the range at the turn of the century.

To that complaint, Michael K. Phillips, the director of the (P Yellowstone wolf recovery project, answers, "It's an effort to put something back that should never have been removed in the first place."

"And," he says with a smile, "it's a government program that's ahead of schedule and under budget. How many of 'em can you say that for?"

Settlers with attitudes

The presence of man -- white men, at least -- has always signaled the death knell for wolves; it is therefore an odd twist that the presence of more people in the West has worked in favor of wolves. But these people differ from those who came before.

Just as the symbols of the Old West remain cowboy hats, hunting rifles and pickup trucks, the newer migrants have their own styles -- and their own gear: Timberland boots and Rossignol skis and Winston fly rods.

Such tokens are more than stereotypes: They are the accouterments of competing industries: the "extraction" industries of the Old West and the "attraction" industries of the New West, such as skiing, canoeing and fly fishing.

Today, the thoughtless slaughter of bison is considered a sorry chapter in the nation's history, but the eradication of wolves is inextricably connected to it.

When Europeans arrived on the shores of North America, gray wolves roamed from the Atlantic Coast to the Pacific, as far south as present day Mexico City and north to the Arctic Circle. These animals coexisted with the Indians; indeed, many tribes venerated the animal and copied its methods of hunting, which varied based on the local geography and local prey.

White settlers had much different attitudes toward the wolf, feelings they brought with them from across the ocean.

They were farmers, not game hunters, who cleared land for livestock. Their antipathy for the wolf was based not just on wildlife management concerns, but on Dark Ages superstitions. Werewolves, women Wolves9A

Pub Date: 12/22/96

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