In 1997 I was a ranger at Yellowstone. On more than one occasion I saw the park’s newly returned wolves, including a scene resembling something out of Nat Geo Wild, where a pair of wolves chased down an elk herd and successfully killed an elk cow.
At the park’s visitor centers, I met visitors who traveled countless miles for the slim chance to glimpse the returned wolves. Something about them was calling these visitors to the parks.
In the years since my time at Yellowstone, I’ve reflected on my interactions with those wolves and all those countless park visitors. I’ve realized that America’s effort to protect the wolf says much about us as a people. We, as a nation, can find the will to set aside a part of our world for the creatures that share our little planet. And perhaps most important we, as a people, yearn for the opportunity to connect to something larger than ourselves, to answer that mythic call of the wild.
Popular old-world fairy tales are littered with stories of the big bad wolf. Tales of savage monsters devouring young children were common, and the mere distant wolf howl could produce instant fear.
Today we’re more enlightened. We understand that wolves are intelligent creatures that live in complex social structures. They occupy an important part of natural world. If we are to restore our planet’s ecosystems, wolves are a critical component.
Roughly 2 million wolves once roamed across North America. As settlers moved across the country, they cleared prairies and forests that served as habitat for the wolves’ prey. These efforts pushed elk, deer and bison and the wolves dependent on them into some of the remotest portions of America.
Wolves often competed with these settlers for the remaining prey, but also on rare occasion for settlers’ sheep and cows. As a result, up until the early part of the last century, the federal government’s policy was to remove large predators from the public domain. Bounties were placed on wolves, and by the 1930s they’d been eradicated from much of the lower 48.
By the 1960s, however, public awareness of wolves began to change. For thousands of years, the creatures played a central role in maintaining the continent’s habitats by regulating prey populations. Their removal caused cascading impacts, pushing elk and deer across the country to unhealthy numbers that damaged forest ecosystems and river and stream shorelines.
Over the next several decades, our scientific understanding of how to restore ecosystems improved. Federal efforts were made to protect species such as the peregrine falcon and the American alligator. By the mid-1990s, public opinion built to where the federal government could reintroduce wolves to the northern Rocky Mountains. In 1995 and 1996, the National Park Service, along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, reintroduced 31 wolves in and around the northwestern corner of Wyoming.
From this handful of wolves, packs spread across the Pacific Northwest. Here in Washington, we’re fortunate to have wolf packs in the east and central parts of the state.
While America’s effort to reestablish the wolf is off to a great start, the recovery is far from complete. America’s wolf populations remain geographically isolated, potentially vulnerable to trophy hunts, and genetically vulnerable. The success we’ve made could easily be overturned. Unfortunately, the Trump administration believes it’s time to remove the wolf’s federal protection leaving them vulnerable to inconsistent state and local management.
Elected officials, including Washington’s Gov. Inslee, must stand up for our wolves and support their continued federal protection. Future generations are certain to judge us on how we answer the wolf’s call.
Sean Smith is a member of the Call of the Wild Campaign. He is a Covington resident, former park ranger, and published author. More information on Sean’s work can be found here: http://bit.ly/parkthrillersblog.