The gray wolves of Yellowstone are heard more often than seen. Their eerie howls can echo up to fifty miles, summoning the pack before or after a hunt. Yellowstone’s wolves are efficient predators, able to take down animals many times their weight by hunting in packs. Through strategic harrowing, you can watch them bring down a buffalo here. They are strategic, efficient and effective predators. They are also protected within the park, but this was not always the case.
When Yellowstone National Park was created in 1872, the goal to “conserve and protect” didn’t extend to the park’s wildlife. Visitors were free to hunt and kill any game in Yellowstone. The gray wolf was especially vulnerable, even after the Secretary of the Interior regulated hunting in 1873. As an “undesirable predator,” the gray wolf was subject to a massive kill-off by the US Army in 1907 (1,800 wolves and 23,000 coyotes). The 1916 legislation that created the National Park Service included language that authorized the “…destruction of such animals and of such plant life as may be detrimental to the use of said parks, monument and reservations.” This is known as “extirpation,” and the consequences are devastating.
By 1926, the gray wolf of Yellowstone was eradicated. This allowed the elk population to grow, contributing to the overgrazing of Yellowstone’s deciduous trees, which affected the small animals and birds that rely on the aspen and cottonwood groves for their habitat, and the fish in the streams churned by more hooves. Without competition from the grey wolf, the coyote population rose dramatically, and those able predators over-thinned the pronghorn antelope population. Park managers, biologists, conservationists and environmentalists were in agreement; the wolf was a necessary part of Yellowstone’s ecosystem.
The campaign to re-introduce the grey wolf to Yellowstone National Park began in the 1940s. By the 1960s, there was an explosion of awareness concerning ecosystems. Scientist, conservationist and hunter all agreed that there was a need to restore Nature’s balance. When the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1966, it paved the way for identification and preservation of fragile species. The gray wolf was one of the first animals to be declared endangered.
The program to reintroduce wolves to Yellowstone began with 14 wolves trapped in Canada, near Jasper National Park. Seventeen more Canadian grey wolves were captured the next year, and added to the program. The wolves were initially placed in “acclimation pens.” They were released fully into the wild in April of 1996. By the late 1990s, the wolves were making their comeback.
This sighting comes from Pendleton’s own Katie Roberts.
I took a Science class in high school where we got to take trips to both Yellowstone and Glacier. We were allowed access to the parks in the offseason, so we were basically the only ones there. On the Yellowstone trip, we were tracking wolves for our class. They’re pretty elusive creatures, so we didn’t see any until the very end of the day, right before sunset. Not only did we see the biggest Wolf Pack in Yellowstone (at the time), we saw it chase down an elk and kill it! It was pretty crazy, the “Nature Channel” in front of our eyes. I spent a lot of times in both parks growing up, but that was probably the wildest thing I’ve ever witnessed!
Here’s Katie at the time (left). She doesn’t look too traumatized by her National Park adventure with wolves…
Wolves are magnificent and eerie, and absolutely vital to Yellowstone’s ecosystem.Today, there are around 100 living in 10 packs in Yellowstone. The effect on the park’s ecosystem has been extensive, thanks to the “trophic cascade” that falls from an apex predator at the top of the food chain to all the animals, birds, insects and plants that make up the food chain of its prey. Wolves actually help to transform their physical environment. Here’s a fascinating video that talks about how the wolves of Yellowstone have changed the rivers of Yellowstone. It is well-worth watching, and explains trophic cascade. Enjoy.
We did a custom mug for Yellowstone featuring the grey wolf here: Grey Wolf Mug
And you can support the National Park Foundation with Pendleton’s Yellowstone collection here: SHOP