YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. - Badged officers blocked traffic as the lengthy motorcade approached. Reporters and photographers crowded both sides of the road, and satellite dishes atop television stations' trucks stood ready to beam the scene to the rest of the world. At a "media center'" occupying a cavernous gymnasium, banks of telephones were ready for journalists dashing to file their stories.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
"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
"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." "
not only teach, though, they also tease.
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." "
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.
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.
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'
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
In other words, Wyoming lawmakers said,
we'll pay you to break the law and provide you with a lawyer when
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
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.
Michael Milstein reports for
the Billings Gazette from Cody,