Car after car holding law enforcers, local leaders and dignitaries passed those waiting to behold the real celebrities of the hour. Then, as the celebrities approached and passed by, local residents braved the cold to wave and cheer at the portentous vehicle.
A horse trailer.
Inside the white carriage pulled by a government pickup truck were eight passengers: gray wolves shipped south from Canada, the first of their kind in decades to take up residence in America's first national park.
And unlike any wildlife recovery project before it, the return of gray wolves to Yellowstone and, simultaneously, to the wilderness of central Idaho, was an unrivaled media event. Not only did it involve the controversial predators, but also a famous national park, plenty of government spending, legal wrangling, and that old reportorial standby, the environment versus the economy.
In the eye of the storm were the wolves: eight wild creatures (six more followed on Jan. 20) that had unwillingly taken center stage in what may be the most ambitious and most emotional wildlife recovery effort of our times.
The effort was historic because it seeks to right what is now seen as wrong: exterminating predators to benefit the prey. This shift toward restoring a natural balance to wildlife populations started just a few decades ago, for as recently as 1922 a Yellowstone official wrote that controlling wolves must be "vigorously prosecuted by the most effective means available whether or not this meets with the approval of certain game conservationists."
From 1914-1926 in Yellowstone alone, 136 wolves were shot or poisoned or trapped. Montana state records for 1883-1918 reveal an enormous number - 80,730 - were killed and turned in for bounty. Now, polls taken at the park and elsewhere show overwhelming support for the predator's return. For many, the wolf's haunting howl seems the essence of the West's rugged landscape.
Yet the wolves aren't entirely welcome. Ranchers near the park fear another predator in addition to the grizzly. Some biologists said that with more federal protection, wolves could move in on their own. And just getting the animals to Yellowstone was an ordeal.
They had been, in no specific order and often multiple times: chased by helicopter across otherwise quiet Canadian forests, targeted by tranquilizer-gun-toting marksmen, manhandled, drugged, shut inside steel crates, poked and prodded in places that would make Little Red Riding Hood turn red, sprayed for lice, ogled by reporters, blindfolded, jostled in trucks, flown around on a cargo plane and stashed in the horse trailer that rolled through the main entrance to Yellowstone.
Then they were hauled aboard a mule-drawn sled, toted (in the steel crates) by none other than Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Mollie Beattie, guarded by round-the-clock security teams and turned into chain-link pens where government biologists hoped they would "behave normally."
If anyone was sensitive to the animals' plight, it was the biologists, who recognized the stress of the journey. As veterinarians were examining a big, 100-pound female wolf, Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Steve Fritts said, "After what they've been through, I don't think they're going to want to have anything to do with people ever again." "
For Babbitt, talking to 100-plus reporters vegetating in the media center, the event was spectacular. "This extraordinary creature creates for us a complete portrait of what a national park should be," said Babbitt, who acknowledged that his ranching ancestors had joined in the systematic poisoning and trapping campaigns that erased wolves.
Relishing the media spotlight far more than the wolves did, Babbitt went on: "At last the wolves are coming home, and Yellowstone will be a complete ecosystem ... It's an extraordinary achievement and it's an important statement about who we are as Americans." "
But as I wrapped up my reports on the first year of the federal effort to return a native carnivore to a small slice of its historic range, I felt sympathy for the wolves, who could never have bargained for anything like what they got.
The sorrow is no reflection on the $7million government plan to revive wolves in the West and then take them off the endangered species list, an ambition that has already seen $6 million put into studies.
The wolf recovery plan aims to move 30 wolves to Yellowstone and Idaho each year for three to five years. By then, biologists predict, 10 fruitful wolf packs will increase on their own and could be controlled by regulated hunting.
But much as we might hope wolves will put nature back into balance so all of Yellowstone is bathed in a golden light, they cannot do it alone. We may be demanding more of the wolves than they can deliver.
Staring at a young wolf corralled in a holding pen in Canada and awaiting transplant to the United States, I sensed that I was being studied as much as I was studying. The bright yellow eyes moved like dual compasses, tracking every move of the two-legged creatures tiptoeing past.
"Even though no other muscle is moving, the eyes always are," " said biologist Fritts, acknowledging the intensity of an animal that truly transcended the setting. "Nothing gets past them." "
I thought back to my visit with Canadian trapper Gerald Gustavson, one of about a dozen trappers under contract with U.S. agencies late last year to catch wolves with snares. U.S. biologists then fitted the animals with radio collars so they could find wolf packs when it finally came time to grab them.
"Some wolves - there's no way I'd ever catch them," " Gustavson had said, revving his snowmobile before a daily round to check his trapline. "Their senses are so strong that my feeble attempts to hide a snare must be just laughable to them."
It took five years, and lots of trial and error, before Gustavson caught his first wolf.
"You're learning from the professionals - the animals," " he had said, pulling on a wool face mask to ward off cold that froze my bottle of drinking water in minutes. "They will teach you, if you pay attention." "
Wolves not only teach, though, they also tease.
Now and then, Gustavson has found that a wolf has not only noticed a snare, but also relieved itself on the wire loop. Others occasionally "water the tires on my truck. They're telling me exactly what they think of it." "
Back in Yellowstone, watching the passing government horse trailer on its way to discharge the wolves in the park's Lamar Valley, I wondered what its passengers thought of their mystery tour, courtesy of the U.S. government. The answer, biologists suspected, was that the wolves would, sensibly, be thinking, "I want to go home." " That's why the plan is to hold the Yellowstone wolves in one-acre pens for six to eight weeks (the Idaho wolves were turned loose immediately), a stay the biologists hope will convince the predators to stick around.
If they do, they can look forward to a smorgasbord of elk, bison and deer, whose ballooning herds clog Yellowstone's northern range. Yellowstone ought to be wolf heaven. But the new park residents can also look forward to hatred and discontent.
When they reached Yellowstone, the wolves became the rope in a tug-of-war no one may win. The first wolves were stuck in their crates for an extra day while the American Farm Bureau Federation won a court stay blocking their release. The argument was, not surprisingly, that wolves will ruin ranchers.
Government lawyers convinced judges to drop the stay, but not before both sides had turned up the rhetoric.
First, the Farm Bureau chided the feds for hauling wolves south even after the organization had warned it would try to get a court to block their release. Babbitt and Beattie, in turn, just about accused the Farm Bureau of orchestrating the wolves' execution.
Telling reporters Canadian authorities had refused to take the wolves back, Babbitt warned that if a court did not allow the animals out of their steel shipping crates, "those cages will be coffins." "
It was a great quote, one the media parroted over and over. But when asked, the Canadians told me they were more than willing to take the wolves back. Chalk up Babbitt's words to the passion of the moment or a move to rally public support.
In a separate moment of passion or pique, a committee of the Wyoming Legislature approved a bill that would put a $500 bounty on the head of each imported wolf, an endangered species protected by federal law. The bill would also direct the state attorney general to defend any Wyoming citizen prosecuted by the federal government for killing a wolf.
In other words, Wyoming lawmakers said, we'll pay you to break the law and provide you with a lawyer when you do.
Wolf advocate Renee Askins had already asked reporters not to reveal the places where the wolves were to be turned loose. She feared wolf foes might welcome the animals with poisoned bait.
In anticipation of just such a threat, ranger teams are providing 24-hour security for the Yellowstone wolf pens. If you pull off a nearby road hoping to listen for howls, a ranger in a patrol car will arrive within minutes to question you. Other, unseen rangers watch from ridgetops, scanning the snowy valley for anyone, including reporters, venturing near the pens, where land is closed to the public.
It's ironic: In this century, park rangers have gone from killing wolves to guarding them. May the wolves survive our clumsy effort to help. n
Michael Milstein reports for the Billings Gazette from Cody, Wyoming.