Wolf Reintroduction in Yellowstone National Park

A Conversation with Steven Fritts

From the Environmental Review Newsletter

Volume Three Number Nine, September 1996


 Personnel of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and cooperating agencies recently captured wolves in Canada and reintroduced them to central Idaho and to Yellowstone National Park as part of the recovery program mandated by the Endangered Species Act. In the winter of 1994-95 the Fish and Wildlife Service-led team released fifteen wolves in Idaho and fourteen wolves in Yellowstone. The following winter they released twenty more wolves in Idaho and seventeen more in Yellowstone. In both areas, many of the wolves set about establishing territories and raising families. Mortality of the reintroduced wolves in Yellowstone has been less than half of what was projected and livestock loss to wolves has been minimal.
     We spoke with Dr. Steve Fritts of the Northern Rocky Mountain wolf recovery program about the reintroduction. Dr. Fritts has been involved with wolf conservation in one way or another since 1972. Steve received a Ph.D. in 1979 working on wolves in Minnesota with Dr. L. David Mech and has worked at the Patuxent Wildlife Center in Laurel, Maryland, where he was involved in several endangered species programs; including, Kirtland's warbler, the California condor, and various Hawaiian forest birds. In 1989 he was transferred to Montana to work on the wolf recovery program in which he was in charge of catching wolves in Canada for reintroduction to Idaho and Wyoming, and for planning the biological aspects of the reintroduction program. In 1996 the U.S. Congress cut the budget of the wolf recovery program as a part of an effort to weaken the Endangered Species Act. Dr. Fritts was transferred to Denver where he now works in the Fish and Wildlife Service's Office of Federal Aid. We spoke with him about the wolf recovery program in the northern Rockies.

ER: Dr. Fritts, where did wolves live before Europeans colonized North America?

SF: When Europeans first arrived on the East Coast of North America grey wolves occupied almost all of the continent except the highest mountains and the driest deserts. The grey wolf was absent from a portion of the Southeast where the red wolf originally lived. Gradually they were killed out of all the lower forty-eight states except for northeastern Minnesota. Wolves were also eradicated in a large portion of Southern and Southwestern Canada on the prairies and the intermountain region, and even in parts of Alaska. The wolf range, continent-wide, reached its lowest point about 1930. Then Canadian provincial governments started giving the wolf more protection in west central Canada: poisoning programs were stopped; they were given game animal status which gave them some protection, at least during parts of the year, and ungulate populations gradually recovered from the years of unrestricted hunting in the early part of the 20th century. As a result, wolves started expanding their range southward again, at least in the habitat that was not so developed it was no longer suitable.

ER: What did wolves find to eat on the Canadian prairie?

SF: Bison were the primary food of wolves over the prairies of the lower forty-eight and Canada; wolves also ate elk, deer, moose, bighorn sheep, muskoxen, pronghorns whatever ungulate was there.

ER: Bringing down an adult buffalo is a formidable task.

SF: It is, but wolves are equipped to do it. Usually they take the older bison, individuals that have some kind of disability, or the calves. There was a time when there was hardly any wild prey left for wolves to eat in the western part of the continent, and at the same time, ranchers were bringing in large numbers of livestock. Ranchers would not stand for wolves killing livestock so every means conceivable was used to eradicate them. In 1915, the federal government got involved with wolf eradication in a major way; the Biological Survey was established by Congress and field personnel went forth with the mission of eradicating not only wolves but other predators as well. Even during that eradication period, some Americans who were otherwise pretty staunch conservationists still could not accept wolves. Teddy Roosevelt referred to the wolf as "the beast of waste and desolation." We eradicated wolves even in the national parks and in the remotest of places where they were doing people no harm.  
     Starting in the 1940s and increasing into the 1970s and 80s, there were many studies of wolves; people started seeing the wolf as an object of scientific investigation rather than as a blood thirsty villain symbolizing evil. Television documentaries and movies started depicting wolves in a more positive way, and ultimately the public's attitude toward wolves changed. That is crucial, because if you are going to conserve wolves, a favorable public attitude toward the effort is necessary.

ER: When did the tide turn for wolves in the U.S.?

SF: I believe it was with passage of the Endangered Species Act of 1973. This act of Congress said we must restore endangered species to a secure recovery level that would allow their removal from protection under federal law.  When the Act was passed, only four or five hundred wolves existed in the lower forty-eight, in northeastern Minnesota. Even though there were plenty of wolves in Alaska and Canada, the wolf was listed as an endangered species in the forty-eight contiguous states. When an animal is listed as an endangered species, the Fish and Wildlife Service is supposed to appoint a recovery team for it; that team is to write a recovery plan.
     The recovery plan for the wolf in the northern Rockies stated that recovery would be reached there when at least ten breeding pairs of wolves were established in northwestern Montana, ten pairs in central Idaho, and ten pairs in the Yellowstone Park area. If that population level were maintained for three years, we could start the process of taking the wolf off the endangered species list.
     The recovery team thought there was a good chance wolves would make it into Montana on their own without any reintroduction, and indeed that has happened. The team thought there was a strong possibility that wolves would get to Idaho by themselves as well, but if a pack was not discovered there in five years, a reintroduction should be considered. For Yellowstone, given that it was pretty far from northwest Montana and central Idaho, the team thought reintroduction would be necessary, and that was the recommendation in the recovery plan.

ER: What is the biological or practical justification for putting wolves back, as opposed to the legal justification?

SF:  With wolf restoration, you are restoring a top carnivore, a top predator to an ecosystem. It is the only missing animal in Yellowstone, and the wolf has a strong influence over the ecosystem. If you are going to claim to have a natural ecosystem in Yellowstone National Park, the wolf has to be there. Some people claim that the Park is overpopulated with ungulates, especially elk; ohers disagree. Whatever the case, wolves will reduce ungulates there, fewer will starve to death and the fluctuations in their numbers will not be so severe.

ER: Why did you think wolves would come back into Montana and Idaho on their own?

SF: They are very good colonizers and the reproductive potential of the animal is high. A pair of wolves is able to produce six pups in their first year. When the young leave their pack they can travel great distances, sometimes 500 miles. If these wolves find another of the opposite sex, there is a good chance they will pair bond, breed and start their own pack. Therefore, the geographic range of the wolf can expand rapidly if conditions are right.

ER: Have wolves moved into Montana from Canada?

SF: Yes. The first pack became established near the international border in the early 1980s, and the first litter to be born in the Western U.S. in over fifty years was born in Glacier National Park in 1987.

ER: How many wolves are there now in Montana?

SF: Right now, there are about seventy-five wolves living in northwestern Montana in eight packs; and every one of these wolves got there on their own.

ER: Are wolves recovered in Montana?

SF: No. Not according to the recovery plan. We need a couple more breeding pairs before we would consider the goal for Montana reached; but we would not initiate delisting until Wyoming and Idaho also had ten breeding pairs for three years.
     Natural colonization of Montana was proceeding well, just as the recovery team had envisioned. But there was strong political resistance to reintroducing wolves into Yellowstone. Finally in 1991, Congress took the necessary steps to allow us to start an Environmental Impact Statement on the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone and central Idaho. The environmental impact statement was finished in 1994; the Secretary of the Interior signed off on it and we had the necessary approval. Suddenly there were many questions to be resolved in a short time: Where are we going to get these wolves? How are we going to transport them? How are we going to release them? Our decision to obtain wolves in another country plus the overall size and complexity of the program put a great deal of strain on the administrative staff in the Fish and Wildlife Service; there were all manner of logistical and administrative obstacles to overcome.
     One of my responsibilities was to resolve where we would get these wolves, and to establish the criteria for selecting wolves. We wanted to select a donor population that was free of certain diseases. We wanted to take wolves from a place where they were well acquainted with the types of prey they would find when we released them in Yellowstone and central Idaho. Needless to say, we had to take wolves from an area where the local people and the local provincial officials were supportive of the program. Other considerations were to acquire wolves from a population that would suffer no long term effects of their removal; to use wolves that were genetically similar to naturally occurring wolves in Montana; and to use wolves that had no prior experience with livestock. The first year we captured wolves near Hinton, Alberta, and the second year we got them from near Fort St. John, BC. Canadian officials were a tremendous help in selecting areas to capture wolves and facilitating the capture and transport parts of the operation.

ER: How many wolves did you catch and release?

SF:     In 1995 we brought fourteen wolves to Yellowstone and fifteen to central Idaho. In 1996 we brought seventeen to Yellowstone and twenty to central Idaho. In Idaho the wolves were immediately released from their transport boxes - what we called a quick or a "hard" release - the idea there was to release wolves that were about the age - two years old - when they would leave their packs and look for a mate and a territory of their own. Central Idaho is a rugged, remote, roadless place; and the wolves had to be airlifted into there.
     The central Idaho reintroduction area covers parts of several national forests, along the mainstem of the Salmon river which runs east to west through central Idaho. We wanted to put the wolves south of the Salmon, thinking the river might be a barrier to northward movement. We knew from some management translocations of wolves, mainly back in Minnesota, that a wolf will have a tendency to travel in the general direction of home. Sure enough, when we released wolves in Idaho, they initially moved in the direction of home, but when they failed to encounter any familiar landmarks some travelled back to the point where they were released. We did not see reproduction the first year in Idaho. This year there are seven or eight pairs of wolves that are fairly sedentary and at least three of those pairs have produced pups.
     We were able to get three groups of wolves into Yellowstone in January 1995. We designed the reintroduction effort very differently there than for Idaho: in Yellowstone we decided to do a slow or a "soft" release. The idea was to capture family groups of wolves in Canada and hold them for six to eight weeks in a large acclimation pen in the wilds of Yellowstone to try to break their tendency to go home.
They were held in acclimation pens in different parts of the Lamar Valley part of the Park, where there was evidence of a high density of wolves prior to their eradication.

ER: Why did you want to bring them in during winter?

SF: We thought the deep snow might slow them down some; we thought the starving elk and bison in Yellowstone might slow them down some; and if some of those wolves bred while they were being held in the acclimation pens, we would be releasing them shortly before it would be time to whelp, and that would tend to discourage long distance movement away from the areas where we wanted them to settle. They would have to hole up and den rather than take off cross country.

ER: Did they reproduce?

SF: There was reproduction in Yellowstone that first year. The Soda Butte pack had at least one pup, but the Crystal Creek group did not reproduce, even though they were observed digging out a den. Surprisingly, the group that reproduced most successfully was not a family group in Canada, but a group we created. We put together an adult female and her pup with a large adult male from another group and called them the Reos Creek pack. They produced eight pups but they did not hang around in the Park to have them. This female we knew as R9, and her mate, R10, travelled toward Redlodge at the edge of the ecosystem and he gets himself shot about the same time as she gives birth. So there she was, stuck close to the town of Redlodge, right at the edge of ranching country. We agonized over what to do about this situation. Should we leave her to cope with her predicament, or should we intervene? We finally decided the best decision for wolf recovery was to take her and the pups back into the Park. They were captured and taken back to R9's acclimation pen where they were kept until October. All the pups survived, and almost immediately after release, a two-year-old wolf from another group joined the group and became the mate of R-9 and thus the alpha male of the group. They are still a viable pack. I have seen this before; young wolves in one group spending time on the territory edge and then responding quickly if there is a breeding opportunity in the neighboring pack.

ER: Does a young male exploring the boundaries of a territory smell the presence of an alpha male?

SF: I am confidant they can do that. One of the main ways wolves advertise their territory is by scent marking. Another way is howling. Take for example, the wolf who joined R9 and became the alpha male. Odds are he had been making visits that we did not even know about to that pen, and he could have learned by olfactory cues that there was no alpha male in that group. He could have reached that conclusion by  listening to the group howl as well.

ER: How big are wolves' territories?

SF: There are areas in Wisconsin where the territory might be only fifty square miles. There are areas in Alaska or other places in the high Arctic where they may be 4,000 square miles, depending on availability of prey. Prey density is the primary determinant of territory size. Territories in the northern Rockies of the US have generally been around 300-400 square miles. I am not sure it is accurate to say the Yellowstone wolves have territories right now because some groups are still moving around and have not settled down into any distinct territory. It seems to take a reintroduced pack a while to figure out where they want to be and factor in where the neighboring groups are, and settle down.
      At least in a well established population, wolves are keenly aware of where their neighbors' territories are. They do not want to run into them, and if they do there will probably be a fight. This year in Yellowstone, one pack of the 1996 wolves made a raid on a 1995 pack's den, killed the pups, and killed the alpha male. That is territorial behavior. In Denali Park, Alaska, wolves killing wolves is the number one cause of mortality.

ER: What sort of attrition have the reintroduced wolves had?

SF:     Overall, the mortality of these reintroduced wolves has been much lower than we projected it to be by this time. About fifty-six of the original sixty-six reintroduced wolves are still alive. One sad incident happened this spring in which a pregnant female and her mate were released from their acclimation pen but a short time after release, the female died. We were getting a mortality signal from the collar; project personnel went in to check on her and discovered she had gotten into one of the thermal pools and died of scalding. To compound the loss, the necropsy indicated she was pregnant. There have been four or five wolves lost in the Yellowstone area over the last six months; in Idaho two or three. One of the Idaho wolves that was released in 1995 made a trip over to a cattle ranch within nine days of release and got herself shot. There was a dispute over whether the wolf had killed a newborn calf that it was close to when it was shot. Our forensics experts concluded it had not killed the calf but was scavaging it. The rancher and the local townspeople disagreed. There was an incident recently where animal damage control trapped a wolf that was killing livestock over in the Deadwood Reservoir area. Those are the only two I can think of in Idaho.
     In Yellowstone the male wolf R10 was killed illegally. There was another illegal killing southeast of the Park in March of 1996. There was another in which the man who shot a wolf realized he made a mistake as soon as he pulled the trigger and he called the law enforcement officials and admitted it. The amount of attrition on the reintroduced wolves has been about half what we thought it would be. But overall we feel it is going well enough that we are going to get a population established in Yellowstone, and it is very likely there will not be anymore new wolves brought in.

ER: The political resistance to wolf reintroduction is focussed on wolves killing livestock. How has that worked out?

SF:     There have been some incidents of wolves killing livestock; not very many but still, more than we would prefer. The Yellowstone wolves have killed three sheep and an Idaho wolf killed a calf just the other day. In Montana where most of the wolves are, and have been for ten years, we have been averaging about three head of cattle and two or three sheep a year back to 1986.

ER: What do you do in that case?

SF: There is a control plan that serves as a guideline for response to wolf depredations. The USDA has a wolf management specialist on staff who does most of the control. In most circumstances there will be an effort to capture the guilty wolves and move them elsewhere, giving them a second chance. If they kill a second time we have the option of killing those wolves, and we have done that a few times.

ER: You can cull out wolves and not set back recovery of the population?

SF: Of course any wolf removed affects the growth of the population. But even with removal of livestock-killing wolves, the Montana population has increased twenty-two percent per year during recent years. Our program always operated with the philosophy that we could remove problem animals. Not everyone agrees; some believe you should never kill a wolf under any circumstances, and some would argue that you should not kill a wolf for killing livestock.  But we have operated under the philosophy that you have to deal with the problem animals; that may mean taking them out of the population, and that may mean killing them. If you don't do that, probably local people will do it for you. If we can show that we can deal with problem animals decisively and show ranchers that they don't have to take matters into their own hands, I think the wolves will be better off. By taking the few bad apples in the group, we hope there will be less indiscriminate killing of the innocent ones. The problem of wolves killing livestock will probably increase through the years because as you have more wolves living in more places, there will be more livestock killed; not large numbers, but it does not take many killed to get people and politicians all riled up. I think media attention leaves the impression among the public that wolves are more serious predators of livestock
than they really are. I know for sure that wolves are the first of all potential causes to be suspected by many people.
     Wolves often live near and interact with livestock on a regular basis without killing them. From what I have seen, this is true just about everywhere in North America where there is abundant natural prey for wolves. But when the natural prey runs low, then they are more inclined to kill livestock.  In Montana we have wolves living near livestock and I am amazed at how few problems occur. That is very similar to the situation in Minnesota when I was there from 1972 to 1984. I knew a number of radio-collared wolf packs that must have encountered livestock daily through the summer and did not kill them or very rarely did.

SF: I think after we reach our recovery goals in the Midwest and in the northern Rockies and the Mexican wolf back is into the Southwest, there will be a period of wolves naturally recolonizing adjacent areas and getting to other states on their own. When they arrive they will be subject to all the protections of the Endangered Species Act. This means that if they kill some rancher's cow, the rancher cannot do anything about it. That is not a good situation for wolves in general; even wolves in desired recovery areas. During the past several years the pendulum has been swinging towards sympathy toward the wolf. That is well and good and has contributed to their recovery. But at some point, with more wolves in many more areas, and more livestock and pets killed by them, the public may say, Wait a minute, and we will lose some of the ground we have worked so hard to gain. Currently there are about 2,400 grey wolves in the lower forty-eight states. In North America as a whole there are about 60 to 70 thousand.
     The Fish and Wildlife Service needs to come to a decision on how many wolves are enough in the lower forty-eight and where we want to restore them. In areas were there is no need or intention to restore wolves, they could be delisted. Otherwise you have wolves showing up in new places continually and they are protected by the Endangered Species Act. Do we write a new recovery plan for the wolf if some show up in Utah or in California? We need to know exactly where the finish line is, at least for the Fish and Wildlife Service's obligations under the ESA.
     The major factor that will affect the status of wolf population everywhere be it Wyoming or Europe, is human attitudes about them. Public education will have an ongoing role in wolf conservation. However, that education will need to include a message that will not be a welcome one to some advocates of wolf recovery; that is, when wolves cause problems, they have to be managed. This the cost of having wolves back in an area. I find it gratifying that the howl of the wolf can be heard again in the wilds of Yellowstone Park and central Idaho. Wolves are magnificent animals that deserve better than humans have treated them during recent centuries.

Copyright 1996 Environmental Review