Few things symbolize the call of the wild more than the sound of howling wolves. Possibly one of the most reviled animals in the world, the wolf has also been one of the least understood in terms of the role they play in the overall health of their habitats. In Yellowstone, the wolf was completely eliminated, and then a pack was reintroduced in the 1990s — a major ecosystem success story.
Approximately two million gray wolves once ranged across North America, with more density in the Upper Midwest and Western part of the US, where habitat and food source was more plentiful. The gray wolf has a range of 50 to 1000 square miles, traveling up to 30 miles a day to sustain itself and its pack. Not a solitary animal by nature, Grey wolves live in family groups we call packs.
The first known wolf bounty began in 1630, largely due to white settlers expanding into their habitat and fears of wolves brought from European homelands. In 1818 a “War of Extermination” was announced on both wolves and bears. Years later, a bounty was put on wolves with the goal of complete eradication. From 1870-77, 100,000 gray wolves were killed. Intense efforts toward elimination increased in the 1930s in the lower 48, including, surprisingly, Yellowstone Park. It was not until the 1960s, when there were only 4,500 wolves remaining in the Great Lakes region, that an early version of the Endangered Species list provided protection for the remaining wolves in the US.
By the 1970s, with the rise of understanding the need to protect all species, a review was made, finding no evidence of a gray wolf population in Yellowstone park. During this period, all wolves were placed on the Endangered Species List. In 1975 the slow process to reintroduce the native gray wolf to Yellowstone, the Yellowstone region, and central Idaho began. The first wolves were finally released into the park in 1995. With protection in the park, the gray wolf started its recovery and establishment of packs. Their introduction into the ecosystem also began a remarkable retransformation of the landscape for the better, which is still playing out in the GYE and something we can witness for ourselves.
In 2017, with 6,000 wolves occupying less than 10 percent of their original habitat, including populations in the Northern Rockies and the Great Lakes area, it was decided by the federal government that the Northern Rocky Mountain Region of Gray wolves had fully recovered in the park and the larger GYE. They were delisted from the Endangered Species List, and their management was handed off to the surrounding states of Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho. What has been witnessed in the past few years is the rapid institutionalizing of wolf killing on par with the past in all three states and elsewhere. Idaho approved year-round killing in the form of hunting or trapping to attempt to reduce their state population by 90%, eliminating well over 1,000 wolves. Wyoming has removed protection for wolves on 80% of its lands, allowing full-time hunting and trapping, resulting in 30 to 40 wolves killed per year. In the first part of 2022, as Montana opened its hunting and trapping season, 24 Yellowstone wolves were killed, with one pack entirely wiped out.
With management left to the states and the massive killing occurring outside of the park’s boundaries, biologists can no longer study the overall positive effects of the gray wolf on the GYE. The park has seen a 48 percent reduction in wolf sightings in Yellowstone. The decimation of the wolves in the Northern Rockies is ongoing.