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THE ENVIRONMENT : Park Sees Peril for Wolf Project : Budget cuts may put in jeopardy a promising plan reintroducing the animals to Yellowstone.

October 24, 1995|DAN WHIPPLE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MAMMOTH HOT SPRINGS, Wyo. — Proposed federal budget cuts may seriously imperil the wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone National Park after only one year, despite evaluations by biologists that the project has been remarkably successful.

The National Park Service brought 14 Canadian wolves to Yellowstone in January, the first wolves in the park since they were exterminated by humans more than 75 years ago. Seven of the predators were black, seven were gray; five were females and nine males; seven were adults and seven were pups.

The wolves initially were held in pens along the park's northern tier--where elk, bison, moose and other prey are abundant--and were released in late March.

Two of the wolves, No. 9, a female, and No. 10, a male, had been put together in one pen. Wolf No. 9 was known to some of the researchers as Natasha, and No. 10 got the nickname Arnold, after actor Arnold Schwarzenegger. According to Park Service wolf biologist Mike Phillips, Arnold "had alpha wolf written all over him. He was absolutely full of himself." The two animals bred, and eight pups were born.

The pack formed by Natasha and Arnold, after some misadventures, left their pen, and by April 24 had migrated to about four miles south of Red Lodge, Mont. On April 26, Arnold was shot and killed by a local man, a manifestation of the controversy and hostility that have surrounded the reintroduction program. The man was arrested and faces trial for violating the Endangered Species Act.

Natasha remained near Red Lodge in what Phillips described as an unsuitable location for a wild wolf. The radio signal from her collar "was audible from the parking lot of the Motel 6," he said. The entire family was transplanted back to the pen and is still there, doing well.

There now are more wolves living in or near the park--in what is usually referred to as the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem--than researchers expected to have at this time. But it is probably not enough to assure continued success of the program. The eventual goal is to have a sustainable population of 100 wolves living in the ecosystem.

Researchers had planned to conduct five separate "reintroductions"--one each year for five years--consisting of 15 Canadian wolves each time.

About $1 million has been spent on wolf reintroduction in the past year, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service budget for the next reintroduction was originally $600,000. Yellowstone Park had budgeted another $340,000 for the next phase.

These figures have been slashed dramatically at the instigation of Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.).

The current USFWS allotment in the Interior Department appropriations bill is $400,000, and the Yellowstone Park portion has been cut to about $100,000.

Ed Bangs, the western wolf recovery coordinator for USFWS, said: "If you look at it scientifically, it's as sound a program as you can get. . . . You can't argue with its success."

"But," he added, "we may not be able to continue this year."

Without new introductions, the chance of establishing long-term sustainable wolf population in the park is "under 50%," Bangs said. "Part of the problem is there are only five females brought down. It isn't hard to imagine that something could happen to one of them, or there's some kind of disease problem that takes out a litter of pups. . . . [It] makes it very precarious."

Mark Boyce, a University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point biologist, said that unless 30 or more wolves are introduced, the chances of failure are high.

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