More were perched on a slope overlooking the valley, armed with cameras and binoculars, staring into the distance. Children skittered around playing, as adults chattered and munched on sandwiches between bursts of shouting directions at each other. It was quite a party atmosphere.
As the late afternoon sun bore down, a shout sent a ripple of excitement through the crowd: someone had glimpsed something. Slipping between the trees skirting the grassy river basin was a wolf.
Although I was there to watch bison, I couldn’t help getting caught up in the excitement of ‘wolf watch’, a feature of tourist season in the park. My heart lifted at the sight of so many people coming together in the hope of spotting a creature that is sadly all too rare these days, and I left in no doubt which creature Yellowstone’s four million visitors a year consider the star of the show.
What a turnaround in fortunes wolves have had in these parts. A century ago, these charismatic beasts were driven to extinction around Yellowstone by government ‘predator control’ programmes.
In 1995, after a battle that dragged on for decades, grey wolves were reintroduced into the park, where more than 100 now roam. Yellowstone is now one of the best places in the world to see this elusive species. They generate $35 million for the park’s economy every year.
Stories of ecosystems destroyed or devalued are two a penny. In Yellowstone, biologists have a highly unusual opportunity to document what happens when an ecosystem becomes whole again: what happens when an important species fallen locally extinct is returned. Wolves kill, but as the experiment in Yellowstone has shown, they also bring new life.
Reintroducing the wolf as a so-called apex predator – the one at the top of the food chain – has helped balance the elk population, reducing overgrazing of vegetation like aspen, willow and cottonwood.
The wolves have also controlled the coyote population, allowing animals further down the food chain to flourish again. Beavers have bounced back, the number of rabbits and mice is rising, and this in turn is boosting survival rates among hawks, weasels, foxes and badgers.
The scheme has even changed the physical nature of the rivers running through Yellowstone. The regeneration of trees and vegetation has helped reduce soil erosion, which makes river banks more stable and brings further life back into the landscape.
Cursed and hunted
However, the reintroduction of these magnificent creatures has been highly controversial. While conservationists celebrated, hunters fretted about competition for their game and ranchers feared for their livestock. Beef magazine summed up the mood among many sheep and cattle farmers with a headline: Western ranchers fight the curse of introduced wolves.
It went on to blame them for a catalogue of livestock kills. While they remain within park boundaries, wolves are protected from hunting. Stray outside, however, and it’s a different matter.
Since October 2021, 20 Yellowstone grey wolves have been killed by hunters after leaving park property. The Phantom Lake Pack is now considered to have been "eliminated". A significant setback for the species' long-term viability and wolf research.
According to figures released to the Associated Press, 15 were shot travelling outside the park’s northern border into Montana and five died in Idaho and Wyoming.
While wolf hunting is legal in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, Wisconsin is the only state that allows the controversial use of tracking dogs. On the opening day of last winter’s wolf hunting season, the first since the grey wolf was removed from the endangered species list by the Trump administration, there was nothing short of a massacre.
State regulators set a quota of 119 wolves but permit errors allowed hound hunters to participate on the first day, and after just two-and-a-half days, hunters were already approaching the limit. Before regulators could shut down the hunt, 216 wolves had been killed.
It’s not only the Big Sky states of the United States where wolves are under threat. Recently it was announced that Finland will be joining Sweden and Norway in culling wolves this winter to control their population. Conservationists have accused the Nordic nations of creating the most hostile environment for wolves in western Europe and flouting EU laws that protect the species.
There can be no doubt that wolves incite deep divisions within society. Many see their return as a cause for celebration, a symbol of success, of determination to repair broken ecosystems.
As I saw that afternoon in Yellowstone, the slightest glimpse of a wolf can be a source of huge excitement to those who do not have to worry about the safety of cattle herds. Others resent their return, feeling it has been foisted on them by high-minded types who don’t understand the realities of life in remote places.
To me, wolves have always evoked a natural world in balance. I know many agree, like Paul Lister, owner of the 23,000-acre Alladale Wilderness Reserve in Sutherland, who has a vision to bring back wolves as part of his rewilding plans – a vision that has parallels with the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park.
Wolves symbolise so much of what it means to be wild: running with the pack, with heightened senses and a fierce will to survive. They are also a perfect illustration of the risk that, if we are not careful, much of the natural world around us might just slide into folklore.
Love them or fear them, wolves are a potent symbol of how modern society has yet to learn to live with wildlife without razing habitats or taking up a gun.
Philip Lymbery is CEO of Compassion in Farming International, a United Nations Food Systems Champion and author of Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat and Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were. He is on Twitter @philip_ciwf