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Wolf History, Conservation, Ecology and Behavior

Wolfology Item # 971
(March 2002)

Click on the journal title (above) for information on acquiring the complete article
Fighting Outlaws, Returning Wolves
Karen Jones
Reviewing humankind's traditional animus towards the wolf, the author notes the historic symbolism of the Yellowstone wolf reintroduction as a "radical reappraisal in human perceptions of wolves."
In January 1995, a motorcade escorting fourteen caged wolves passed under the Roosevelt Arch, the imposing gateway to Yellowstone National Park, northern Wyoming, in the United States of America. Flag-waving children, camera-wielding press, and emotional onlookers lined the road as if welcoming a president or returning military hero. After an absence of nearly seventy years, wolves returned to Yellowstone amidst a flurry of popular activity. However, the scheme to return canine denizens to the American Rockies had proved intensely controversial. Radical environmental groups protested that there were insufficient protective measures for the returning wolves, whilst ranching lobbies filed legal injunctions against the project. For several years, a court case threatened the removal of Yellowstone's newly restored packs. A secure future for park wolves was guaranteed only in January 2000, when the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favour of the reintroduction. Over 150 wolves, from eight packs, now roam Yellowstone's forests and river valleys, attesting to a radical reversal of fortune for the maligned predator.
The fierce passions aroused by the Yellowstone reintroduction scheme reveal the wolf as a contentious animal in human history. Across several continents, the species Canis lupus has endured unremitting persecution. In early European pastoral society, people celebrated the domestic dog as a worthy ally, whilst deriding his wild ancestor, the wolf, as an indomitable enemy. In Medieval Europe, wolves acquired a pungent reputation for trickery and ferocity. Folk tales conjured up images of devilish four-legged beasts, incorrigible ravagers lurking in the forest eager to devour lost travellers, debased creatures with probing yellow eyes and blood-soaked fangs. Aesop's fables portrayed canines as creatures of deceit, whilst Dante's Renaissance text, Inferno, cast the she-wolf as an arch-symbol of greed. Imaginary wolves continued to stalk the pages of literature and legend for some time after their real-life counterparts had been eliminated from England's rural realm by the sixteenth century.
European migrants brought nightmarish visions of wolves with them to the New World. Colonists found the North American wilderness alien and threatening....
Everts provided a typical Euro-American assessment of wolf character. However, an older, indigenous tradition in the Yellowstone region encapsulated a more favourable perception of resident carnivores. Casting the wolf as an influential spirit and a cherished social guide, Native American storytellers offered an alternative folklore to the devilish incantations of European legend. Illustrious lupines assumed pivotal roles in the sacred stories of myriad tribes. The Rocky Mountain Blackfeet celebrated the Wolf Trail (the Milky Way) as a sacrosanct path leading to the Spirit World, whilst the Canadian Cree interpreted the incandescent glow of the Northern Lights as a sign of Spirit Wolves visiting the Earth. The Kwakiutl of the Pacific Northwest believed that their nation descended from four wolves that survived a great flood, before shedding their skins to become human....
Many Indian Nations idealised the wolf as a powerful hunter famed for resilience, agility, and intelligence. In order to absorb lupine hunting spirit, Blackfeet braves slept on furs and offered howls of praise to the wolf. According to Cheyenne tradition, Owl-Man, leader of the fearsome Wolf Soldiers, even received instructions on war dances and strategy from dozens of wolves that rescued him during a snowstorm....The Sun Dance ceremony practised by Plains Indians required the skins of dead animals in order to glorify the spirit of the wolf.
Native American tribes had largely disappeared from Yellowstone by 1872, the year that Congress declared the region a national park. Combining a dual mandate of preservation and public use, the purpose of America's first national park lay in protecting wonderful scenery for the `benefit and enjoyment of the people'. Emphasis on servicing visitor needs created pressure among early managers to modify the landscape and make the park attractive to tourists....
In the early 1870s, The New York Times described Yellowstone's strange landscape as `the realisation of a child's fairy tale', but the treatment of park wolves harkened back to darkling tales of fierce beasts lurking in the forest. Keen to nurture herds of `preferred species' such as bison, elk, and deer, Yellowstone's managers declared predation patently immoral. Whilst docile grazing herds added a pastoral and peaceful quality to the landscape, employees considered wolves and coyotes to be devilish killers and enemies to the national park purpose. Grazing herds existed for the aesthetic pleasures of visitors and not as prey for the palates of so-called `noxious' animals. Park rangers patrolled Yellowstone armed with rifles and traps, wilfully dispatching any wild canines that they came across....By 1926, wolves had been shot, trapped and poisoned out of existence in America's first national park.
As the last wolf disappeared from Yellowstone in the 1920s, proponents of ecological science began to realise the importance of preserving biological units and maintaining natural balance. A number of radical biologists reappraised predation as essential in the scheme of nature rather than an evil to be eradicated. Such ideas invariably altered attitudes towards Canis lupus. Yellowstone naturalist Edmund Heller celebrated the wolf's predatory nature, questioning `Who would not give a year of his life to see a wild wolf or a whole pack of wolves trailing down an elk or deer?'....[B]iologist Joseph Dixon... argued that the extermination of wolves in Yellowstone `was not in accordance with the aims and ideals for national parks', and, the following year, official policy finally decreed that `no native predator should be killed on account of its normal utilisation of any other park animal'.
....Increasingly, national parks became viewed as `last stands' for endangered species, with ecological science assuming Canis lupus to be an integral part of a healthy ecosystem. The National Park Service stressed the need to restore park ecosystems, in the words of one influential 1960s report, `as vignettes of primitive America'. Canis lupus represented the only native species missing from Yellowstone, tarnishing the conservation record of America's `crown jewel'....Pressure for wolf restoration grew....
While eighty-two per cent of park visitors in 1987 wanted wolves in Yellowstone, a vociferous minority of Westerners submitted an alternative assessment of national park priorities. Anti-wolf groups drew attention to Yellowstone's enabling act, highlighting the preserve as a public recreation area rather than a refuge for `dangerous' beasts. Montana Senator Conrad Burns regurgitated old frontier motifs of the wolf as savage killer, and warned of a dead child in Yellowstone within the year. Local ranchers portrayed themselves as cowboy defenders of their own `Wild West', and regarded the wolf in Yellowstone as an affront to their distinguished pioneer history. Westerners cast themselves as the endangered species threatened by what one rancher called a `hazardous waste' of wolves. The reappearance of wild canines in the West signalled an ominous future for a beleaguered ranching industry already struggling with changeable weather patterns and equally volatile market prices....
Reflecting the rich diversity of popular opinion on Canis lupus, the Environmental Impact Statement for the wolf restoration project contained 160,000 public comments, the largest for any federal programme in US history. The scale of the wolf controversy proved that the role of Yellowstone National Park remained starkly contested. Wolf reintroduction took twenty years to implement and generated massive public debate. Yet, on January 12, 1995, wolves made their historic return to the American Rockies. The motorcade transported its canine charges to three remote acclimation pens, where the wolves spent ten weeks adjusting to their new environment. Officials opened the pens in March 1995, and, after initial reluctance, the packs resumed customary canine activities, establishing territories and hunting trails throughout the park.
In the years following the restoration, the wolf usurped the bison, the grizzly, and even Old Faithful to become the favoured emblem of Yellowstone National Park. Canny merchandisers exploited the commercial potential of the charismatic predator. Wild canines invaded gift-shops, roaming T-shirts and neckties, calendars and water bottles. So-called `wolf-groupies' stalked Yellowstone's Lamar Valley, eager for glimpses of their grey idols....
....The elaborate project to return Canis lupus to the Rocky Mountains intoned a radical reappraisal in human perceptions of wolves, overturning centuries of Euro-American malice in favour of a benign attitude toward predatory species. To project leader Doug Smith, the reintroduction scheme `represented a revolutionary change in how we view ourselves in relation to nature'. Over thousands of years, shifting economic imperatives, socio-environmental preferences, and popular mythologies had conspired to create a negative perception of wild canines. Reflecting a synthesis of wildlife ecology and animal rights philosophy, the Yellowstone wolf programme articulated a fresh desire for species co-existence. Significantly, the Yellowstone reintroduction emerged as part of a growing international interest in restoration. In the Scottish Highlands, environmental campaigners and landowners wrangled over the possibility of reintroducing wolves to a landscape devoid of lupine presence since the 1700s.