Decade of the Wolf

An Animal and Its Element
By Douglas W. Smith & Gary Ferguson
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Smith Crystal wolf pack, Yellowstone
Smith Crystal pack on the move over Mirror Plateau, 1999 (Photo © Douglas W. Smith)

They were once among the most abundant predators in all of North America—at least five subspecies of wolves, perhaps two million animals, spread across the continent from coast to coast. Hunting whitetails in the lowland forests of the East, where now stand the skyscrapers of Boston and New York; howling in the dark of long, unbroken runs of chestnut and hickory in the central Midwest. Running the shores of the Great Lakes, slipping through the big trees of the Pacific Northwest, hunting in the cool of night in the arid deserts of Arizona and New Mexico.

But despite their numbers, despite their speed and strength and remarkable cleverness, it took just a couple centuries for us to wipe them from well over 95 percent of their former range in the conterminous United States. By 1960 there were a mere 500 left, mostly cornered in the remote regions of the upper Midwest. In part, of course, the extermination can be said to be a triumph of man's astonishing ability to kill that which either frightens or inconveniences him. But in a very real sense it's also a reflection of the fact that, unlike coyotes and mountain lions and even black bear, all of which have found ways to more or less co-exist with human beings, wolves have shown no such inclination. Instead they're prone always to stand their ground, not bending for the sake of living amicably alongside humans.

Which makes it all the more striking to think that in the ten years since wolves came home to Yellowstone, they've become for thousands of people a symbol of a wilderness ideal, a fascination kindled amidst growing threats to America's last untrammeled places. Today less than five percent of the nation is protected wilderness. Of these places not even a handful are big enough to support healthy populations of large carnivores. Wildlife winter range in the Rockies is being lost to development at a staggering pace; in parts of Colorado alone land is being subdivided at the rate of ten acres every hour. Despite the dramatic success of the Yellowstone wolf reintroduction, originally launched under the directives contained within the federal Endangered Species Act, no one can say for sure how these animals will fare here in the long run. Their fates, after all, like the fates of most creatures, are connected to strands in the web of life over which they have no control.

About the Authors: Douglas Smith, the Wolf Project leader, has studied wolves for 24 years and has worked on the reintroduction effort in Yellowstone since its inception. He lives in Gardiner, Montana.

Gary Ferguson is an award-winning nature writer whose books include The Yellowstone Wolves and Hawks Nest: A Season in the Remote Heart of Yellowstone. He has written for publications including Vanity Fair, Outside, and Men's Journal. He lives in Red Lodge, Montana.

Published: 21 Mar 2005 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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