Perched on a mountainside in Yellowstone's Lamar Valley with Park Ranger Rick McIntyre, we eyed the Crystal Creek wolf pack tracking an elk. It was 1995, and these were the first wolves to return to the national park in 60 years.
Perched on a mountainside in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley with Park Ranger Rick McIntyre, we eyed the Crystal Creek wolf pack tracking an elk. It was 1995, and these were the first wolves to return to the national park in 60 years. As we watched the alpha male and female loping together across the green thaw of spring grasses, we could not know how these wolves would revitalize this ecosystem, dramatically increasing everything from insects to trees to songbird populations.
And yet, with all of these environmental successes, the Bush administration has announced plans to end federal protection for wolves in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. As soon as this month, federal wildlife managers will use our taxpayer dollars to trap, hunt and shoot wolves from airplanes, even kill wolf pups in their dens.
This is a wildly unpopular extermination program driven by a small minority of ranchers and hunters who see the wild wolf only as a rival, when, in fact, wolves have much to teach us about ecosystem balance.
From a small group of 66 wolves returned to Yellowstone and central Idaho that spring of 1995, there are now almost 1,500 in the Northern Rockies. The return of the gray wolf has brought a multitude of tourists to Yellowstone to hear again the haunting howl — to community — of wolf packs. It is a canine symphony that is still somehow familiar to us, even though for many generations wolves were slaughtered and silenced in America.
McIntyre, who authored “The War Against the Wolf: America’s Campaign to Exterminate the Wolf,” told us stories of our history with wolves: Pups hauled out of their dens with baited fish hooks; whole packs poisoned; a town using gray-wolf carcasses to pave a road.
But that day in Yellowstone, we witnessed wolves going about their natural business, which included tracking, playing with pups and a close encounter with a grizzly. Right over the ridge, a grizzly bear shambled, unaware of the wolf pack. We all held our breath, telescopes trembling like antennae.
“There’s a kind of professional courtesy between top predators, such as wolves and grizzlies,” McIntyre whispered to us as the grizzly caught the wolf scent and ambled off.
Even a half-mile away, we knew the Crystal Creek pack could hear and pick up our scent. They were allowing us to see them. “The grizzlies know the wolves are back. They are completely aware of each other’s presence. But, you know, these top predators can share.”
McIntyre explained that when the three packs of wild wolves returned to Yellowstone, the ravens were the first other species to feast on the carcasses the wolves killed. “The wolves seemed pretty tolerant about letting those ravens share their leftovers. And then grizzlies and coyotes also took what they wanted, after the wolves were done.”
McIntyre turned to us and concluded, “You see, everybody benefits when the wolves take their place again in the food chain.”
Those benefits are more vital than just thriving tourism and American public opinion, which now widely favors wolves in our lands. Researchers at Duke University have recently reported that predators are the key to keeping the world green, because they keep the populations of plant-eating animals under control so native plants can grow, free from overbrowsing. This “green-world hypothesis” was first theorized in 1960 by U.S. scientist Nelson Hairston and others. In the 13 years since wolf reintroduction, this theory has tested true in Yellowstone.
Wolf biologist Cristina Eisenberg at Oregon State University is studying the green-world hypothesis in Glacier National Park. She says that since wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone, scientists have documented “rapid recovery of over-browsed aspen, willows, and cottonwoods, stream bank stabilization in eroded streams, and a dramatic increase in biodiversity of songbirds.”
“Wolves are keystone predators who nurture the entire ecosystem,” Eisenberg explains. “If we eradicate wolves or lower their numbers, the whole system will grow impoverished and collapse.”
Seeing wild wolves as allies in our work to keep our habitat healthy is a practical vision that should now carry more weight than the nonscientific and prejudiced gunning down of wolves that has dominated our wildlife managers in other centuries. Environmental groups such as Defenders of Wildlife have reimbursed ranchers for the few livestock wolves have taken. And our wilderness areas are more vibrant and sustainable with wolves.
President Bush’s extermination plan again ignores its own government scientists, who have said that the current population is still too small to determine if the wolves have recovered. This is perhaps Vice President Dick Cheney’s and his Wyoming rancher buddies’ last unfair hunt — a brutal kill of the very wolf packs that we have so painstakingly reintroduced and nurtured. The state-run wolf-control plans would target 150 wolves in each of the three states — officially slaughtering up to 700 wolves.
Why sabotage an ecological success, a model for other countries, and a gift to the next generation? If these keystone predators can share their hunts with other animals, can we learn balance and generosity from wolves?
When Aldo Leopold gazed into the “fierce green fire dying” in the eyes of a female wolf he had just killed in 1949, he had a revelation: “There was something new to me in those eyes.”
“I was young then, full of trigger-itch; I thought that because few wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise,” he wrote. “But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”
In a recent National Wildlife Federation national poll, 63 percent of Americans opposed a judge’s decision to remove wolves from Yellowstone and central Idaho. It is time for all of us — not only hunters and ranchers — to determine wildlife-management policy. If enough of us howl at Congress in protest of this wolf slaughter and sign petitions at www.CallOfftheGuns.org, perhaps the green fire will not die.
Our grandchildren will still hear wolves howling and helping to keep our world green.
Brenda Peterson is a Seattle novelist and nature writer who first wrote about the Yellowstone wolf reintroduction in The Seattle Times and her memoir, “Build Me an Ark: A Life with Animals.”