Bringing Back the Pack

Bringing Back the Pack

In the mid—1870s millions of bison still roamed the West and were a critical food source for wolves, grizzlies, and Native Americans. The tidal wave of bison slaughter that followed is well known. People reasoned that so vast were the bison herds that they could never be eliminated. A mere decade later only a few hundred bison remained in hidden valleys of Yellowstone National Park.

Entrepreneurs, drawn by the opportunity to cash in on all the free grassland, rapidly imported cattle and sheep to replace the buffalo. It was simple at first, for the ranchers needed only to turn the livestock out onto the open range — no investment, no upkeep. Their success was short—lived, however, because the brutal winter of 1881 wiped out 95 percent of some herds, forcing the owners to retrench their operation. Fences went up, and so did the cost of ranching. Any loss of livestock became a critical factor, especially for those cattlemen who were operating on a low profit margin.

There was little choice of menu for the wolf; finding the range being depleted of bison, its natural prey, it turned to another source of food, the plentiful and very vulnerable cattle and sheep. The loss of live—stock to the wolf weighted heavily on rangers, and several cattle states quickly placed a bounty on the head of the wolf. Because the wolf was forced to become a natural enemy in competition with man, it was the creature to despise, hunt, and destroy. In Montana alone between 1883 and 1942, more than 80,000 wolves were killed. Hunters shot them on sight, poisoned and trapped them, and dynamited their dens. By the turn of the century the wolf was plainly the whipping boy that shouldered the blame for the difficult life on the frontier. So intense was the drama that the program of extermination was expanded to bizarre proportions. The Montana State Legislature in 1905 passed a law requiring the state veterinarian to inoculate captive wolves with a contagious deadly disease, sarcoptic mange, and then to release them back into the wilds so they could infect other wolves. This grotesque program was doomed from the start. The infected wolves remained near the source of food, so the disease quickly spread among the livestock and took a far greater toll than the wolves had ever taken. Montana ranchers had no choice but to hunt down infected wolves and destroy any of their stock that they suspected of having the disease. Many cattlemen were forced into bankruptcy, and again the wolf was the scoundrel to blame.

The Montana incident was not the only case of a law that bounced, and again the cause of the problem was man's failure to recognize that the wolf has a place in the natural order of things. As a controller of herbivore populations, there is no more efficient game warden than the wolf. Early in the twentieth century the Kaibab Plateau of northern Arizona was home to about 4,000 deer and many wolves. In 1906 the area became a game preserve, so the wolf had t o be eliminated. The massacre was so effective that within twenty years not a single wolf was alive in the area.

Without the wolf the deer population swelled tremendously and explosively on the Kaibab Plateau. The increased numbers caused the environment to deteriorate, and the only means of population control was starvation. Since the wolves, which would have kept the deer population in ecological balance naturally, were no longer on the premises, there was only one recourse. The responsibility for correcting the imbalance of nature fell to man, the perpetrator.

Throughout the country, determination to wipe out the wolf continued. By the 1930s the wolf was near extinction in the West, but ranchers still felt that any wolves were too many. The federal government sent in its own armada of exterminators. Well—known hunters and trappers were placed on government payrolls, and the slaughter began again in earnest. These men hunted, trapped, clubbed, and shot wolves until the few that remained fled to Canada. By the 1940s, when the last 136 wolves were eliminated from Yellowstone, the wolf was completely extinct in the Rockies and adjacent territories.

Until recently, the only viable wolf populations in North America were in Alaska, Canada, Minnesota, and on Isle Royale in Lake Michigan. In 1987, the same year that wolves were placed on the endangered species list, reputable environmentalists and scientists drafted a manifesto on returning these predators to the ecosystems that require them. Help was on the way, not merely by the way of concerned environmentalists, but with overwhelming approval from the public at large.

The wolf is an important element in a healthy ecosystem. Smaller predators such as the wolverine, lynx, badger, and fox depend on the carcasses left by the wolf, and herbivores such as elk, deer, and moose become healthier, better controlled populations. Of all major species of mammals that have inhabited Yellowstone during the last ten thousand years, only the gray wolf has been missing.

In the winter of 1994—95 the first fourteen wolves were returned to the park, and nine pups were born. Another seventeen were added a year later. A forested area outside the park provides them with a buffer zone away from human habitation, and those that wander from the park return to their home territory. With only four casualties, it is hoped that the current population can be stabilized without further additions.

At the same time, the red wolf, which was all but eliminated from its native southeastern United States, has been given a second chance in the Great Smoky Mountains, and plans are under way to transplant the Mexican wolf into Big Ben National Park and into wildlands throughout the Southwest.

The wolves represent the last missing piece in a complicated wildlife jigsaw puzzle. The ecosystems of the national parks will be self—sustaining when the wolf pack returns.

From the book: 
Our Fascinating Earth