The Pack is Back

A Roundup of the Wolf Reintroduction Debate
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Kennan Ward photo of wolves
Notecard available from Kennan Ward

The story of wolves, as with all of nature, is a story of balance and conflict. The pack's duty, mandated by nature, is to maintain a balanced structure amongst each other and to ensure balance amongst the woods, the prairie, the desert, and the mountains that they occupy. The vigor of other animal species depends on the wolves' role as predator—catching the slower and the weaker. It is survival of the fittest—a simple concept that is nothing new—kindergarten ecology. What isn't so simple, however, is resolving the conflict that has pitted wolves against humans, and humans against each other.

In the new war of the West, reintroduction of the near-extinct gray wolf to Yellowstone National Park has been the centerpiece of battle among farm groups, local ranchers, and environmental organizations.

The Yellowstone wolf reintroduction occurred under the experimental population provision of the Endangered Species Act. Gray wolves, which once flourished in the northern Rockies, were taken off the shelves in Canada and transported to Yellowstone and Central Idaho. They were released outside of their current range to promote recovery of the species. Ranchers and state farm bureaus opposed the five-year-old reintroduction program because they said the wolves would endanger livestock and humans. They also claimed that the program was unnecessary because there was already a viable wolf population in the area.

In suing over the program and requesting removal of the wolves, the American Farm Bureau Federation and state chapters, the major proponents of wolf reintroduction, said that while native wolves are covered by the Endangered Species Act, reintroduced wolves are considered part of an "experimental population" and can be shot if they threaten livestock. The farm groups said that the reintroduction program violated the Endangered Species Act by providing different levels of protection to the native and the reintroduced wolves.

In 1997 a federal judge upheld the federation's appeal and ordered that the airlifted wolves be removed from Yellowstone National Park. The removal order was appealed by environmental organizations and, in a recent key decision, a court ruled that the transplanted gray wolves could remain in the park.

The pack is there to stay. And so is the controversy. Despite concluding years of legal debate and tolerance-building measures initiated by Defenders of Wildlife and other environmental organizations, the issue is still a hot one.

The heat was felt in GORP's conservation forum as well, as both sides expressed convincing and often passionate opinions on the reintroduction program, wolves as predators of livestock, and the ultimate future of wolves in North America.

A Tarnished Image?
The image of the wolf is based on a foundation of legends and fables. Here are a few that have contributed to the wolf's persecution through the centuries as well as to an understanding of its elusiveness, loyalty, and strength.

Wolf as Nurturer

• Wolves raising orphaned human babies like Mogley in Kipling's Jungle Book

Wolf as Myth

• The gaze of the wolf was once thought to cause blindness.

• In the Middle Ages, folks believed that a horse that stepped in a wolf print would be crippled.

• For centuries people believed that wolf meat was poisonous.

Wolf as Big and Bad

• The boy who cried wolf

• Images and stories of the wolf through the centuries led to our modern sayings referring to a human as being "hungry as a wolf" and stocking up to "keep the wolf from the door."

• Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf that swallows poor old grandma whole

• The Three Little Pigs and the pork-pursuing wolf who blew down their feeble homes

• The full-moon metamorphosis of the werewolf

• The trickster and sinister ways of a "wolf in sheep's clothing"

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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