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Will the Wolf Survive? Yes, Biologists Find


YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. — Field biologist Mike Phillips was fretting over the mysterious death of a young female wolf in a temporary holding pen here when the telephone rang.

It was a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official desperately wanting to ship at least five pups from a troublesome Montana pack to Phillips' already overcrowded pens.

Phillips hung up the phone, sighed and said: "I can't turn my back on those pups; the alternative is killing them. On the other hand, there may be a flaw in our husbandry program that could put other wolves at risk."

It was another trying day in the office for the head of the historic project designed to bring wolves back to the top of the food chain in the nation's oldest national park. He would rather have been out watching the effort unfold in the wild.

And unfolding it is. Twenty-one months after gray wolves from Canada were reintroduced to the northern Rocky Mountains of Yellowstone and central Idaho, they are settling in and breeding so successfully that biologists hope to begin the process of removing the wolf from the endangered species list by 2002.

With 34 wolves in five packs now loping through the forests, significant repercussions are being recorded throughout the 2.2-million-acre park's wildlife hierarchy. Wolf predation, coupled with the sudden bounty of wolf-killed elk, is dramatically reshaping the behavior of scavengers, from grizzly bears to carrion beetles.

As a result, biologists say, life in Yellowstone is returning to a more natural state faster than anyone had anticipated.


"Over the past year, a wink in ecological terms, we've seen things we can scarcely believe," said Robert Crabtree, a field biologist and federal consultant studying wolves and coyotes in the park. "Elk huddling in larger groups, grizzly bears fighting wolves, wolves killing coyotes and coyote pups, wolves forcing coyotes to den in places where they are running into black bears."

The absence of the wolves had disrupted the natural balance of predator and prey throughout the Rocky Mountain region and resulted in a population explosion of such species as deer and elk. A fully recovered wolf population is expected to kill 1,200 elk, deer and moose a year.

Right now, Crabtree says, the greatest impact is being felt by coyotes, which were top dog in the park until the wolves returned.

"What was once a quiet, comfortable condominium complex for coyotes is now a totally socially disrupted system," Crabtree said. "We've seen wolves kill coyotes with severe bites to the chest that crush ribs, play with the carcasses and then toss them aside unconsumed.

"At the risk of being anthropomorphic, I can't help but be reminded of those ranchers who kill coyotes and hang them from fences to send a message to other coyotes."

Trouble is, sheep also are being killed by wolves that roam beyond the park's boundaries. When a wolf becomes a problem, it is captured and released elsewhere in the park, or killed. Nevertheless, ranching organizations are continuing legal efforts to dismantle the wolf program and have the animals that have been released so far returned to Canada.


"It's a very sad thing to have your sheep eaten by wolves, and equally sad to have wolves shot to death on your property," said Susan Brailsford, who lost four sheep to a lone Yellowstone wolf this year.

"The first time we lost sheep, the Feds . . . brought in a helicopter, netted the wolf, tranquilized it and then released it deep inside the park," said Brailsford, whose family ranch is about 25 miles north of Yellowstone. About three weeks later, the wolf was back at her ranch, sniffing around the barn. Federal wildlife authorities killed the wolf with a shotgun fired from a helicopter.

Ranchers and their congressional allies once predicted that the wolves would kill hundreds of sheep and cattle. In fact, no livestock were killed in 1995. So far, Yellowstone wolves have killed only 12 sheep this year, and all affected ranchers have been compensated.

Losses of wolves also are lower than anticipated. Nine wolves have died in Yellowstone this year: Two adults and one pup were believed killed by other wolves, two were illegally killed, one was killed by federal wildlife authorities, one was hit by a delivery truck, a pregnant female died after falling into a hot spring and a female pup died of undetermined causes in a holding pen.

For biologists, those are acceptable losses.

"There is nothing simple about this restoration plan, but we are good at what we do," Phillips said. "Also in our favor, wolves are good at what they do and hard-wired to breed."

The prospects of watching wolves in action--and spectacular carnage--are drawing hordes of "wolf groupies" to northern Yellowstone's lush Lamar Valley, a vast meadow between steep mountains where three packs are settling territorial scores.

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