Award-winning author David Quammen has lived in the Yellowstone region for decades. As the planet changes, so does Yellowstone National Park, with some of its greatest threats coming from insects migrating in and megafauna migrating out. In a Q+A with Nexus Media, Quammen discusses the park in a time of changing climate.
Below is a companion excerpt, exploring the impact of wolves—their loss, and their return—on the Yellowstone ecosystem, taken from Quammen’s new National Geographic book Yellowstone: A Journey Through America’s Wild Heart.
Abducted by Aliens
Some problems can be fixed. Some mistakes can be rectified. The extirpation of wolves from Yellowstone National Park and the vacancy of the wolf’s ecological niche fall in that category. Seldom in United States history has such a bold conservation initiative yielded such a resounding and controversial success.
The first wolves that recolonized Yellowstone, after 60 years of wolf absence, were captured in western Canada during January 1995, by tranquilizer darting from helicopters, and transported south in large wooden shipping crates by plane and then by truck to the Lamar Valley. It must have been a harrowing journey. For 10 weeks they lived in acclimation pens, largish areas behind high fencing, each pen enclosing roughly an acre.
There were three pens, all located discreetly up little drainages beyond sight from the Lamar road—one at Rose Creek, one at Crystal Creek, one farther upstream at Soda Butte—and containing a total of 14 translocated wolves. At first the wolves scarcely dared step out of the crates. They had been abducted by aliens, after all, and who knew what might happen next?
Packmates from Canada, already familiar to one another, were assigned to the same pens, in an effort to minimize trauma. They ate roadkill deer, elk, moose and bison brought on mule-drawn sleds by park biologists, who otherwise left them alone.
After their 10 weeks’ acclimation, the fences were opened and the wolves, tentatively at first, wandered free.
Not all of them survived the hazards of their new location (one alpha male, known as #10, ranged up into Montana and was promptly, illegally, shot) but most did. Abducted or not, they made the best of the situation. During the second year, 1996, another 17 wolves arrived and two new acclimation pens were opened in other parts of the park. That spring, those animals too walked free, and wolf reintroduction was essentially complete.
The chief of this Yellowstone Gray Wolf Restoration Project was Michael K. Phillips, an experienced carnivore biologist who had worked on red wolf recovery in North Carolina. Doug Smith was then a field biologist following Phillips’s lead (before succeeding him, in 1997, as head of what’s now simply the Yellowstone Wolf Project). Phillips, a believer in well-calibrated public outreach, offered a few journalists the opportunity to tag along and glimpse the acclimation process.
I was among the lucky, and so on a March morning in 1995, before the first releases had occurred, I post-holed uphill through the snow, alongside Phillips and his mules and his sled-load of frozen elk carcasses, to the Rose Creek pen. I remember helping unload the meat, dragging it into the enclosure, and then being invited by Phillips to peer into one of the transport crates, which had been left as a sort of doghouse. An adult female wolf, huddling inside, peered back like a worried puppy.
Almost 20 years later, not many miles from that spot, I stood with a small group of hardy souls, devoted wolf-watchers in wool hats and gloves, equipped with spotting scopes on tripods, as we gazed out across the valley toward a large, gray wolf on an elk carcass near Soda Butte Creek. Ravens attended nearby. It was just after dawn, early May, and cold. These people were cheerily seizing the day.
A unique culture of such amiably fanatical wolf-watchers has arisen since 1995, and the Lamar Valley is their headquarters; you can find some of them any day of the year, clustered at turnouts along the Lamar road. They are generous with their pooled information and with views through their scopes—to a newcomer like me, for instance, arriving with only binoculars. This gray adult on the elk, he’s the alpha male from what’s now called the Lamar Canyon Pack, someone explained. The female is in her den, with the cubs, up on that hillside to the north, in the trees. Moments later we were joined by Rick McIntyre, in his park service olive, the chief observer and indefatigable chronicler of the wolves of the Lamar.
McIntyre, a soft-spoken man with sandy red hair sticking out from his cap and extraordinarily pale skin despite living his life outdoors, has spent much of the past two decades watching and recording the behavior of these animals—their pairings, their tiffs, their acts of predation and parenting, their conflicts between one pack and another, their transfers of allegiance, their competitions with grizzlies and mountain lions, their thefts of carcasses, their play, the growth and maturation of pups, the aging of adults, the sad but inevitable disappearance of those who can no longer keep up.
Back in 1994, McIntyre was a naturalist ranger who did interpretive programs, carrying a wolf pelt into busy areas such as Old Faithful and Mammoth, drawing a crowd, and talking about wolves. Then the live wolves arrived. For almost two decades now he has worked for Doug Smith on the Yellowstone Wolf Project, though his job is still interpretation as much as monitoring. He’s an ambassador for the wolves, adding guidance and understanding to the way Yellowstone visitors see them. He knows the animals, individual by individual, pack by pack, their genealogies and their proclivities, as thoroughly as if he had written the script of this great canine soap opera himself. The female in her den at Soda Butte, he told me, is the fifth-generation descendant of the Canadian pair who acclimatized in the Rose Creek pen. With that statement, I realized: On that day with Mike Phillips 20 years ago, I probably looked her great-great-grand-mother in the eyes.
No one foresaw, McIntyre said, that wolves would settle in so comfortably and be so easy to watch in the Lamar Valley. But, in retrospect, it’s explicable. The habitat is excellent along both sides of the little road, the prey is plentiful, the sight lines are long, and the animals here—unharried by hunters—don’t spook at the sound of a car or the presence of humans with tripods and scopes. They go about their business, sniffing and stalking, killing and eating, mating and raising their young, and occasionally howling, while people from all over the world stand rapt at the roadside, enjoying this rare chance to see wolves in the wild.
According to a 2006 study by economist John W. Duffield and two colleagues at the University of Montana, wolf-focused tourism by visitors to Yellowstone at that time brought an estimated $35.5 million annually to the economies of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. Park visitor numbers have since increased substantially, and the cash value of live wolves presumably has too. The Duffield team’s survey data placed wolves second on the list of animals that people most wanted to see, behind only grizzly bears.
Wolves had meanwhile been reintroduced also to a wilderness area in central Idaho, almost 200 miles west of Yellowstone. From both reintroduction areas they spread, multiplied, and spread farther, reoccupying wolf habitat to the point that, within two decades, at least 1,600 wolves composing some 280 packs lived in the three- state area. Occasionally they preyed on livestock as well as wild ungulates, getting themselves in trouble, provoking control measures (wolf killing) by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and reawakening among ranching communities a vehement wolf-hatred that had lain dormant for decades, like the deep, sore memory of a blood feud.
For reasons that even economics and psychology can’t untangle, some people truly hate wolves, in a way no one hates grizzly bears or mountain lions. Nevertheless, wolves were back and thriving, with their passionate defenders (such as the watchers in the Lamar) as well as their passionate despisers. Lawsuits, court decisions, and proposed rules for removing them from listing under the Endangered Species Act flew every which way. Then, in 2011, the wolves in Montana and Idaho were delisted (while the Wyoming situation remained in dispute), whereupon those two states began to license hunting and trapping.
Excerpt from Yellowstone, Copyright © 2016 David Quammen, published by National Geographic Partners, LLC. on August 23, 2016.
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