Watching Yellowstone's Wolves

Rick McIntyre, a Yellowstone employee, seated, tells visitors from the Netherlands about the park's wolves. McIntyre watches the animals daily.
Rick McIntyre, a Yellowstone employee, seated, tells visitors from the Netherlands about the park's wolves. McIntyre watches the animals daily. (By Brett French -- Billings Gazette Via AP)
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Gray wolf range
By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 26, 2008

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK -- The wolves are back from a hunt, bedding in the tall grass of the Lamar Valley.

"So that's the alpha male, 480. Two black pups, they're trying to get a regurgitation. . . . Black pup is approaching. . . . Two gray pups are bedding. . . . The black male has bedded to the left. . . . We have a black coming in carrying something. . . . This may be a grouse."

Rick McIntyre, a soft-spoken park employee, narrates into a tape recorder as he observes the Druid Peak pack. This pack is thriving, unlike the Slough Creek wolves farther down the valley. Druid Peak wolves killed the Slough Creek beta female one day recently in sight of the wolf-watchers. Three days later, the Slough Creek alpha female turned up dead, possibly killed by other females in her own pack.

This is wild stuff, on display for anyone with a viewing scope and a willingness to stand in the cold on the windswept hill that overlooks the glacier-carved valley. Yellowstone rangers say this is the best place on Earth to watch wolves in the wild.

But 13 years after being reintroduced to Yellowstone, they remain polarizing animals, generating endless controversy and furious litigation.

On Friday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took steps to revive a 2007 proposal to remove the gray wolf of the northern Rockies from the Endangered Species List. Environmentalists howled, calling it a last-gasp effort by the Bush administration to delist wolves.

The Fish and Wildlife Service had officially delisted the wolves in March, and afterward wildlife officials in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana developed management plans that included hunting seasons. In Wyoming, anyone could shoot a wolf at any time in most of the state.

A coalition of conservation groups sued in federal court. In July, U.S. District Judge Donald W. Molloy issued an injunction that put the wolves back on the endangered list.

Now Fish and Wildlife is reopening its plan for public comment, making clear that it believes the wolves have recovered sufficiently to allow the states to take over their management. Further litigation is a certainty.

"All wolf stuff will always be in court," says Ed Bangs, the agency's wolf recovery coordinator. Taking the long view, he says that for thousands of years, wolves have been both romanticized and demonized. "Wolf stuff has nothing to do with reality; it's all about symbolism."

Dangers and Successes

The wolves are fecund -- the bunny rabbits of the predator world.

But for every 100 wolves at least six months of age, only 74 will live through the year, Bangs says. Of those that will not, 10 will be killed by government agencies because they attacked livestock. Another 10 will be killed illegally. Another three will die accidentally -- struck by a car, for example. And three will die from natural threats, including being killed by other wolves.

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