Wild Talk

Gary Ferguson on the Yellowstone Wolves, Ecotourism, and More
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Gray Wolf
Canis lupus, the comeback kid. (Corel)

We caught up with former GORP guest Gary Ferguson in the Yellowstone backcountry to ask him some questions about Yellowstone's famous wolves and their eight years of freedom.

In your book, The Yellowstone Wolves, you chronicle the 1995 reintroduction of wolves to the park and their ensuing quest for survival. How are they doing today?

Spring 2003 will mark the eighth year since 14 Canadian wolves walked out of their acclimatization pens to a new life in Greater Yellowstone. From these original animals—as well as the 17 wolves released the following year—the population had grown to roughly 216 animals in 24 packs by the end of 2001.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has set the following goal: Before wolves can be removed from the endangered species list, at least 30 alpha pairs must successfully breed and raise pups across three recovery zones (Greater Yellowstone, northwest Montana, and central Idaho) for three consecutive years. In addition, the respective states have been charged with compiling management plans for dealing with wolves in the event of de-listing. While Idaho and Montana have their plans in place, Wyoming has been dragging its feet. This fact, along with inevitable challenges to de-listing by environmental groups, is likely to keep gray wolves on the endangered species list for some time to come.

Numbers and politics aside, it would be hard to imagine a more successful conservation effort in American history. In the summer of 2002, I had the pleasure of several backcountry wolf encounters—both with a newly formed, unnamed group at the northeast corner of the ecosystem, as well as with the Delta Pack, located in the southeast corner of Yellowstone National Park. It has been a thrill to watch this graceful and intelligent animal back in its natural habitat, and also to realize that Greater Yellowstone is now in full possession of its historic species. The American public overwhelmingly supported this effort. They should feel proud of what that encouragement has fostered.

Dan Neal, a Wyoming journalist, describes the furor that greeted the wolves' return as the battle for "who controls the West, especially its public lands." Do you agree, and is it a battle being lost or won by a particular side?

To a large degree, Neal is correct. Environmentalists continue to be outraged by what they see as the control by a few powerful special interests of supposedly public lands—in particular, ranching, mining, and logging. What's often lacking in this perspective, however—and please note that I consider myself an environmentalist—is the ability to fit people into our vision of wild lands management. Like it or not, many of the elk that form the prey base for wolves are heavily dependent on private ranch lands for winter range. In making enemies of the ranchers, we not only lose their knowledge of the land, but also unintentionally drive ranchers one step closer to going out of business, which almost always results in their selling out to developers. The bottom line is this: Lose the open space that ranches provide, and you lose the elk populations; lose the elk populations, and you lose the predators that depend on them. It's a telling fact that during the wolf reintroduction only one national environmental group—Defenders of Wildlife—had the courage to create a compensation fund for wolf-related livestock losses. They alone, or so it would seem, understood the connection between private ranch lands and a healthy predator population.

I cannot imagine being an environmentalist today without having as your top priority to stem the rapid loss of habitat. The plain truth is that this is not a battle that can be won by either side.

Many ranchers and anti-federalists saw the legislation to bring back wolves to Yellowstone as part of a wider conspiracy in which environmentalists and the "suits" in Washington, DC, were wresting power from the locals. What's the view from the ground now that the wolves are part of the landscape?

Privately, many ranchers tell me they're relieved, since the dire predictions of wholesale livestock slaughter by wolves simply haven't taken place. That said, there are a number of very vocal opponents, many crusading against the wolf as if it was Satan himself. In my opinion, such people are far less interested in the wolf per se, than in using it as a poster child for a deep-seated resentment of the federal government. If wolves had been allowed to populate Greater Yellowstone naturally—which they would have done in 15 to 20 years with the expansion of populations in northwest Montana and northern Idaho—would there have been less rage and furor surrounding their presence?

In The Yellowstone Wolves you describe ranchers as giving "wolves powers of evil that would make Stephen King embarrassed." Throughout history, the wolf has been a symbol of evil and all-round bad guy—the persecutor of the three little piggies. How long before nursery rhyme stereotypes disappear?

I'd say at least another two generations. Curiously, money may help grease the wheels. Last year alone, more than $20 million flowed into Greater Yellowstone communities from visiting wolf watchers. A few outfitters are beginning to capitalize on the enormous public interest by booking summer trips into "wolf country."

It's worth remembering that many ranchers grew up hearing tales from their great grandparents about wolves doing considerable damage to livestock. Those stories were true. However, the reason wolves "came out of the woodwork"—not to mention other predators, such as mountain lions and bears—is that the prey base had been ravaged by commercial hunting. Today, that prey base is at historic highs; indeed, the wolves of Yellowstone enjoy one of the highest prey to predator ratios anywhere in North America.

Published: 13 Aug 2002 | Last Updated: 5 Dec 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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