Winter Wolves in Yellowstone National Park

It was a cold morning, even for Yellowstone. The car thermometer showed -20 as I pulled up beside a local acquaintance and filmmaker, Bob Landis, who was already on the scene to work on his epic story for Nature, The Rise of Black Wolf (now on YouTube). We exchanged frozen whiskered grins and I continued up the road into the Slough Creek area of Yellowstone National Park. As I gazed at the steam of nearby geysers, large black forms came out of the trees and fog and were immediately discernible as they trudged through the deep snow. The Druid pack. One of the first descendants of introduced wolves before canid diseases such as parvovirus nearly wiped them out, their leader was one wolf both Bob and I were there to see: wolf 302. Without hesitation, this black alpha male crossed the road right in front of me and continued up a hill and stopped, tail down, gazing directly at me. I only had an instant to move my 15-pound 600mm lens onto the roof of the car and squeeze the shutter before the moment was over, forever to be etched in my memory, and never repeated. Wolves. The very word conjures up early childhood memories for many of us. Even though this apex predator was all but gone in the lower 48 by the time most of us were born- by around 1920, nonetheless, many of our parents as children heard stories about ferocious wolves. During story-telling times, fables carried forward through generations about a wild animals viewed only as pests or threats to livestock. My parents were given a different narrative, by the Russian composer Prokofiev, who in 1936 wrote a well-known musical story where a brave boy (Peter and the Wolf) rescues a wolf, an altogether different moral message about choice and heroism than that offered by the plan to eradicate all predators from North America.

Whatever narrative represents your earliest memory of wolves, our American story
changed in 1995 when wolves were reintroduced by a team of biologists into YNP. Which
happens to be the reason I was standing out in minus-20 winter weather watching a
pack of the first descendants of the reintroduced wolves traverse a snowy Yellowstone
field toward me.

What have we learned since Yellowstone’s epic re-introduction of wolves? How does
that reintroduction influence what happens with Colorado’s voter-induced
reintroduction, set to occur this month? I asked Doug Smith - the head biologist for the
wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone for 28 years- these questions recently. The
occasion was a sold-out 550+ audience who braved a cold January evening to hear
Doug, a straight-shooter, a biologist, a Bozeman, Montana resident, speak about what
we learned, what mistakes were made, and why it mattered. Here’s what he told me from
the perspective of both a biologist and one who understands the importance of ranching
communities. Predators are important to the balance of nature. Wolves in Yellowstone
helped transform the landscape through a trophic cascade. Minimizing conflict with important ranching communities is critical to success. Doug told me that there would be different challenges to Colorado’s program due to Yellowstone’s natural physical boundaries versus Colorado’s sprawling wildlife-urban interface. I spoke with Andrew Gilliford, a professor at Ft Lewis College in Durango, who has edited a critical exploration of both the history and what’s at stake. (The Last Stand of the Pack -Critical Edition by Arthur H. Carhart, University Press of Colorado) According to Professor Gilliford, “Wolves are part of our Western wildlife heritage.
Learning to live again with them in the Rocky Mountains may be one of our most
important 21st-century lessons in ecology and humility.”

Currently, wolves are no longer considered an endangered species, and due to 2023
delisting, their numbers are governed by state governments in Wyoming, Idaho and
Montana. State officials in Colorado plan to release wolves on Colorado Parks and
Wildlife land between Glenwood Springs, Vail and the Roaring Fork Valley starting in
October, 2023.

Is it important for apex predators to exist in our wild places? To what extent do they help
preserve the future of biodiversity for our children and their children? What are the
threats they pose, and what are the potential benefits to us and future generations?
Learn more at https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/predatorimportance.pdf.
Environmental literacy, such as it is, is up to all of us.