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Wolves' return to Yellowstone sparks controversy

wolf November 12, 1997
Web posted at: 5:51 a.m. EST (1051 GMT)

From Correspondent Jack Hamann

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK (CNN) -- The meals are catered, but the menu lacks variety -- cold carcasses of deer and elk roadkill served up to a wolfpack on probation, locked in a pen.

The Nez Perce Pack is at the center of a firestorm over which wolves should live and which should die at Yellowstone National Park. Named for a tribe of American Indians who fled through the park hoping for sanctuary in Canada, the pack of wolves is also looking for a safe haven in this remote wilderness.

It's been almost three years since the federal government began the controversial measure of reintroducing wolves into Yellowstone. While conservationists supported the move, ranchers were wary.

Breeding program successful

bangs & Smith

Some 80 wolves now live in or near the park, many of them pups. Wolves are held in "acclimation pens" where, it is hoped, they will get used to their surroundings and form packs. Packs, it is believed, are less likely to stray from the park than stragglers.

"In general, the acclimation has worked," says Doug Smith of Yellowstone Park. "In fact, of the 31 wolves brought from Canada, there was really only one wolf, and that wolf is number 27, where we feel here in Yellowstone acclimation did not work."

Number 27 killed almost 50 sheep a few weeks ago, and had to be destroyed. The rancher who lost sheep was compensated with money from Defenders of Wildlife, a pro-wolf group.

wolf info

How great a threat?


The 50 lost sheep attracted attention, but were hardly a rarity. In Montana alone, tens of thousands of free-range livestock die of various causes every year.

"Predators are just a minute portion of that," says Ed Bangs of the National Fish and Wildlife Service. "And wolves are an immeasurable portion of that. On average, wolves kill about four or five a year, so industry wise, wolf predation means nothing to the industry or the economy of this area."

"Some ranchers say, 'Look, it's people or wolves, not both,'" Smith says. "I think we're at point now with wildlife and biodiversity and conservation biology in the United States that we can do better. It's not black or white. We can have both."

While the wolves pose some threat to humans' domesticated animals, there is little risk to people themselves. And while humans have killed an estimated two million wolves in this century, there is not a single documented case of a human being killed by a healthy wild wolf.

A pack of trouble

As biologists and rangers approach the Nez Perce pack's chain-link pen deep in the park's interior, they hear a surprising sound -- a wolf barking from outside. Somehow the alpha male, the leader of the pack, has escaped, only two weeks after he was recaptured. In his last escape, he dug under the fence and freed the rest of the pack.

"I think one's out," says biologist Carrie Shaefer. "That bark is an aggressive, defensive behavior."

If the pack escapes before spring, when they are scheduled for release, they will likely threaten livestock, and will have to be destroyed.

The Nez Perce pack was released in April 1996, and immediately lost "pack unity," the National Fish and Wildlife Service said. Individuals strayed into areas with little wild prey and plenty of livestock, a handful of sheep and cattle were killed and two pack members were shot dead.

Since most of the Nez Perce pack are still in the pen, recapturing the stray is not Bangs' top priority. "I think the main thing is to keep the fence running, because he's not going anywhere," he says. "Not with his woman in the pen."

"Or his buddies," Smith adds. "(He's a) family-oriented animal, that's for sure."

In the cramped offices of the Wolf Recovery Program, Smith and Bangs struggle over the fate of fugitive wolves. The return of the wolves to Yellowstone requires a balancing act among ranchers and conservationists, a dispute with these men in the middle.

"I'm getting a call from a rancher, yelling at me because the wolves are out and the killed some sheep," Bangs says. "The next phone call is from an animal rights person saying, 'You bastard! Burn in Hell, murderer of babies!' Then the next call is another rancher."

"I think you definitely have one of the most difficult jobs in the United States, there's no question," Smith sympathizes.

The wolves already in Yellowstone have bred so successfully that plans to transplant other wolves into the area are on hold. That's a success story to some, but how success will be defined -- and what it will cost -- is the ongoing debate.


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