YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK – For six months every two years, Kirsty Peake and her husband move from the United Kingdom to Montana for one reason: to spend the winter watching wolves.
“We never come in the summer; there are too many people,” she said while standing next to her spotting scope near Tower Junction on a relatively warm morning – about 28 degrees.
Peake said after seeing the wolves for the first time in 1999, she and her husband were so enthralled that they organized tours to help pay for their return to Yellowstone again and again until 2005 – just to see the park’s wolves, and on some days they don’t.
But on Monday, the 20th anniversary of the wolves’ reintroduction to Yellowstone, the wild canines seemed to have showed up to celebrate, even howling. The visibility gave 5-year-old Orion Stone a chance to see his first wild wolf. After Peake set up her spotting scope low to the ground, Stone squinted through the magnifying lens and smiled.
“I really like it,” he said, when asked what he thought.
The popularity of wolves, drawing people from around the world, is certainly one of the success stories of wolf reintroduction into Yellowstone. Those people pay for lodging, transportation and food that benefit nearby communities and the park.
The down side, wolf opponents would argue, is that there are now about 13,000 fewer elk than before wolves were reintroduced. When elk numbers were higher, hunters would gather at the park’s borders, feeding cash into the same communities.
So 20 years later, are things better, worse or just different?
Ecologically speaking, park biologists argue that returning such a top-shelf predator as wolves is a good thing – not to mention that restoring Yellowstone to its natural condition has been a long-term goal of the National Park Service. Although elk numbers have declined, those that remain are a tough breed, said Doug Smith, Yellowstone Wolf Project biologist. Other crews that help Yellowstone trap and collar some of the elk have confirmed that they are the “meanest, toughest elk they encounter anywhere else in the United States,” he said.
Reducing the number of elk has freed riparian areas from grazing, increasing the amount of streamside foliage that has benefitted beavers and birds, studies have shown.
“The really interesting question is: What is the next 20 years going to look like?” Smith said.
“What we’re worried about is the monkey wrench that climate change throws into it,” he added.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the controversy over having wolves on the landscape. People like Peake are enamored with the big predators. Others – some hunters, outfitters and ranchers – would just as soon see wolves eliminated from the western landscape once again.
In Yellowstone, Smith said he thinks wolves and elk have reached an equilibrium. Wolf numbers will likely bounce around 100 animals annually, he said, with elk numbers seeming to have bottomed out at about 5,000 to 6,000.
What wasn’t foreseen is that as elk numbers have declined, bison numbers in Yellowstone have risen.
“That’s the big unanswered question: How are bison going to flip things?” Smith said.
Bison are not on the preferred menu for wolves, simply because of their larger size and ability to harm attacking wolves. Bison also consume more forage than elk because of their large size. Seeing the bison numbers climb, the National Park Service has stepped in to say more will be shipped to slaughter this winter in an attempt to reduce bison populations.
Outside of the Greater Yellowstone Area, wolves continue to move individually and in pairs into new territory including Utah, Colorado, Washington and Oregon. Carter Niemeyer, who captured wolves in Canada that were transplanted into Yellowstone and Idaho, is performing contract work at Washington State University as wolf numbers have grown in that state.
“There’s still serious resistance to wolves coming into Oregon and Washington,” he said. “There is still the same issues that come up continuously about them being a different species, that they are diseased and carrying parasites, and they’re bloodthirsty and they’re having these extreme impacts on the livestock industry and wild ungulates. Those concerns still go on at the burning edge of the prairie fire as they move westward.”
Yet he and other wolf advocates say despite the animosity and outright disapproval of wolf expansion in the lower 48 among some residents and lawmakers, “the fight goes on” for wolves.
“There is a groundswell of support starting again from the public,” said Suzanne Stone of the conservation group Defenders of Wildlife. “That to me is the most encouraging thing.
“Sometimes things have to get worse before they get better.”
For Peake, things can’t get much better than watching wolves in Yellowstone. Even on days when the temperature plummets, the wind howls and no wolves are seen, she still feels thankful to be spending time in such a beautiful, wild area.
“I think the most amazing thing I saw was last February,” she recounted.
The alpha female of the Junction Butte wolf pack had been injured the evening before and was lying on her side on the slope of a hill as the rest of the pack tried to get her to stand up. She never moved until one wolf nudged her and she slid down the slope. A circling raven, seeing a possible meal, landed on the listless female wolf.
“Her head came up as if to say, ‘Not on your life,’” Peake said.
The wolf ended up losing her alpha status, finally recovered from her injuries and lived to regain her status and gave birth to five pups.
“Every day we see something new,” Peake said.