On a sub-zero January day near Hinton, Alberta, in 1995, I lost the feeling in my toes while reporting on the wolf reintroduction. As the anesthetized wolves arrived into holding pens, their fierce green fire dulled by drugs, I wondered how they would fare in one of the country's fastest-growing regions. From Coeur d'Alene to Silver City, an influx of modem cowboys posed new challenges to the West's traditional agricultural base. Into this volatile mix, the feds were now bringing a critter that had been hunted, trapped and poisoned to the brink of extinction before the Great Depression.
The remote location of the wolves' new homes in central Idaho and Yellowstone would enable them to go forth and multiply, dispersing into a much larger area. But how would the people respond? Could the old-timers adapt to yet another change? Would Westerners nursing an enduring grudge against Washington ever accept the government-protected varmints? Would the new lifestyle refugees be able to live with Canis lupus chomping down on their bichons frisés?
It was hard to find a rural Westerner who thought wolf reintroduction was a good idea. States' rights were a hot topic that year, and Wyoming and Idaho wanted wolves about as much as they wanted Bill Clinton as president. At the same time, a growing tourism and recreation economy was bringing people to a region still wild enough for large predators. Depending on your point of view, the wolf represented unfettered federal intrusion, a carnivorous devil, or all that is noble and pure in the notion of wildness.
I wondered: Was the West changing fast enough — or perhaps too much — to accommodate a new predator?
Nearly 14 years later, I took a weeklong trip through the wolf's southern range, mostly in Sublette County, Wyo., right after the federal judge's ruling reclaimed wolf management from the states. I sought an answer to a simple question: After living with wolves for more than a decade, had anybody actually changed their mind about them?
The obvious response can be found in a terse one-word reply from Mike Jimenez, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who has been at ground zero for the entire wolf program: "Nope."
In some ways, little has changed since those first Canadian wolves set paw on U.S. territory. Most ranchers still feel that it made as much sense to bring wolves back as it does to feed locoweed to your own cattle, and many hunters and outfitters believe the wolves are decimating trophy animal herds. Environmentalists still hail the beneficial ecological effects of the wolf in the Northern Rockies – and promote the New West economic boom from wolf-inspired tourism.
But in visits with ranchers, sheepherders, outfitters, hunters, biologists, environmentalists and Native Americans, a more nuanced answer emerged. Despite all the hot rhetoric, the truth is that since wolves were released, a lot has been done to accommodate people who live with predators. Government and private programs have eased tensions by paying ranchers when wolves kill their animals. Ranchers and sheepherders adapted to the wolves' presence with more intensive range management, putting up better fencing and hiring more riders, and government wildlife managers are quicker to kill wolf packs that repeatedly prey on livestock.
No matter where you stand on the issue, it's clear that the wolves have had a profound impact. Beneficial biological effects are cascading through the wolves' expanding range. Political alliances have been formed and broken because of wolves, and some people have lost money even as others have made it.
But the West of 2008 is not the same as the West of 1995, much less the 1930s. It's a stretch to say that human attitudes have changed just as profoundly. Still, even as wolves spread to more heavily populated areas, there is now broad acceptance that wolves are here to stay, and that Westerners must, however grudgingly, get used to living with them.