POLEBRIDGE, Mont. — Once gunned down on sight or poisoned with strychnine-laced bait, the endangered Rocky Mountain gray wolf is trying to make a comeback in this remote valley on the North Fork of the Flathead River.
The howls of a wolf pack--unheard in the West for half a century--are once more echoing off the stony peaks in Glacier National Park. Biologists tracking this group report that individual wolves have recently split away from the pack to form two more packs that are now ranging nearby, along the U.S.-Canadian border.
Farther down the west side of the Continental Divide, a few lone wolves are prowling the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness in central Idaho. In all, 20 to 30 wolves are moving south slowly in a migration that may or may not succeed.
Importing Canadian Wolves
In an attempt to assure the wolf's comeback, the National Park Service wants to capture Canadian wolves and reintroduce them in Yellowstone National Park, 400 miles south of the border.
Wolves were once a natural part of the Rockies, and the absence of these predators "is the single greatest departure from . . . maintaining a natural ecosystem in Yellowstone," according to a Park Service policy statement. "Now is the time to reintroduce the wolves," Yellowstone Supt. Robert Barbee said in an interview.
In the natural scheme of things, wolves prey on elk, deer, moose and bison. Hunting in packs, these voracious predators thin the herds. Park biologists say that without the wolf, elk populations have soared, until today an estimated 30,000 range across Yellowstone, a number that park rangers would like to see reduced.
However, the wolf's future in Yellowstone and the West is still very much in doubt. Ranchers, politicians and environmentalists are locked in a battle over whether wolves should be put back in Yellowstone or anywhere else. Cattle ranchers are afraid that the wolves could never be contained within a national park or wilderness area.
"I don't want the wolf near me," grumbled Wyoming cattleman Jack Turnell, owner of the 120,000-acre Pitchfork Ranch southwest of Cody.
Echoing those sentiments, sheep rancher James Siddoway, president of the Idaho Wool Growers Assn., said, "If we allow reintroduction of the wolf . . . we won't be be able to control depredation on livestock, no matter what they (pro-wolf advocates) say."
The predator they fear is Canis lupus irremotus, one of 24 subspecies of gray wolf that once inhabited most of North America. Larger than its Eastern cousins, the male Rocky Mountain wolf weighs 100-plus pounds and stands 30 inches at the shoulder. These animals live in small, tightly organized family groups. Each pack is dominated by an alpha male and female, the only mating pair in the group. The wolves are highly social and often playful among themselves but they shy away from people.
Appeared Six Years Ago
While wolves in the Lower 48 states were wiped out by settlers, hunters and government trappers, they survived and even flourished in the wilds of Canada and Alaska. No reproducing pair of Rocky Mountain wolves had been seen in the Western United States in more than 50 years until a pair appeared on the Flathead River six years ago.
While stockmen may still believe wolves are savage beasts, the public's attitude seems to be changing. Park Service surveys of Yellowstone visitors show that they no longer believe that wolves are the evil creatures depicted in fables. Opinion polls in nearby states show strong public support for a return of the wolf.
But this positive image suffered a setback last June when a pack of seven wolves began killing livestock on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation near the town of Browning, Mont., east of the Continental Divide. Wolf experts claim that this rogue pack went after livestock because game was scarce on the reservation. But stockmen who graze cattle on the prairies east of Glacier scoffed, saying, "A wolf is a wolf."
The Indians are also divided on the issue. Fred Crossguns, a rancher and tribal game warden, called in federal trappers to help eliminate the wolves, while Blackfeet traditionalists protested the killing. Buster Yellow Kidney explained: "The old Indians lived side by side with the wolf. . . . They were very much a part of our sacred ways."
The controversy over bringing wolves back to the Rockies has pitted National Park Service Director William Penn Mott Jr.--who favors the plan--against the state governments of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, plus the powerful Wyoming congressional delegation that has taken the issue directly to Mott's boss, Interior Secretary Donald P. Hodel.
"I am every bit as committed to preventing government introduction of wolves in Yellowstone as Bill Mott is determined to put them there," Rep. Dick Cheney (R-Wyo.) wrote Hodel, warning, "If he (Mott) wants a fight, I am ready."
Wolf Recovery Plan