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Wolves’ return to Yellowstone recalled on 25th anniversary

A wolf statue sits inside the home of Norm Bishop Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020, outside Bozeman.

BOZEMAN, Mont. — The day the wolves arrived in Yellowstone National Park was busy. At least that’s how Norm Bishop remembers it.

The wolves came in aluminum crates on horse trailers Jan. 12, 1995. Passing through the gates, the Canadian-born carnivores were the first of their kind in the park in decades, other than the occasional rumor or random sighting.

Bishop, who was Yellowstone’s resource interpreter, had spent years giving public presentations about the science of wolf reintroduction. He would explain what the experts thought would happen if gray wolves were restored to the Yellowstone ecosystem. How they weren’t likely to injure people or devastate the livestock industry or eat every single elk.

How they were a missing piece of the ecosystem, and how things might change things if they returned.

Each time, he used that powerful two-letter word — “If wolves are reintroduced …” — because there was no guarantee this day would come.

Then it did. But there wasn’t time for him to marinate in the significance. There was work to do.

“For me, it was just kind of busy,” Bishop said.

His day began early. He went to Crystal Bench, east of Tower Junction in the northern part of the park. One of the park’s three acclimation pens was there. The wolves were to live in those pens until biologists believed they were ready for the wild.

After the truck convoy got through the park gate — where a crowd of wolf advocates, reporters and school children had gathered to watch — it headed east from Mammoth Hot Springs. Once it was close enough to the pen, it stopped and park staffers loaded six of the crates onto a mule-drawn sleigh. The sleigh carried the captive animals over the snow to Bishop and the others tasked with hauling the boxes to the pens.

It wasn’t easy — 100 pounds of wolf inside 100 or more pounds of metal. Four people per crate. They were as quiet as possible. So were the wolves, Bishop remembered, unaware of the fanfare of their journey.

He helped carry the second crate, which held the alpha male of what would become known as the Crystal Creek pack. Photos from that day mostly focused on the first crate — a good photo op for Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, who shared the load with Yellowstone superintendent Michael Finley and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director Mollie Beattie.

In some of the images, Bishop can point to a glove or leg that belongs to him. But there’s one where he’s unmistakable. It hangs on the wall in his office. It shows him whispering in Babbitt’s ear, telling the secretary where the crate carrying the alpha female should go.

For a long time, wolves were viewed as a nuisance. Something to be killed, not preserved. People viewed them and other predators as dire threats to livestock and the wildlife species people liked better — like deer and elk.

The effort to get rid of wolves was successful in the Yellowstone region. While a small population held on in northwest Montana and Canadian wolves did OK, they were extirpated from the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. The last known pack was killed in 1926, though sightings of single wolves were occasionally reported after that.

Looking back on that era now, biologists and conservationists would view the park as incomplete. Bishop described it as a Bach concerto without the trumpets.

Crates being dropped off 25 years ago Sunday was the beginning of the return of the trumpets. Now, there are people old enough to drink and smoke and rent cars who have never lived in a world where the Yellowstone ecosystem didn’t have wolves.

Biologists and conservationists have seen it as a great success.

“It truly was and is a rebirth and recalibrating of what is the essence of Yellowstone,” said Finley, the former superintendent.

Doug Smith, the park’s top wolf biologist, was hired for the reintroduction and has spent the last two-and-a-half decades watching what came next.

He’s seen wolf numbers ebb and flow. The population peaked in 2004 at 174, but it’s since declined and stabilized. He said it has hovered around 100 in 10 packs since about 2008.

He’s seen the dire predictions propagated by opponents of reintroduction fall by the wayside. Among the wildest was the claim that wolves would hurt people. No one has even been bit by a wolf in Yellowstone.

He’s seen the ecological changes the wolves brought. Most prominent is the decline in elk. The population in the park’s northern range has dropped from roughly 20,000 to between 6,000 and 8,000.

That came to the chagrin of hunting outfitters north of the park, who can make money on big elk that cross the park’s border. But Smith and other biologists say that 20,000 elk was too many and that the park is healthier now. The park’s vegetation has benefited. Aspen and willows can grow taller without so much pressure from elk browsing for nutrition.

“Yellowstone is a better place with a fully intact carnivore guild,” Smith said.

Getting to that version of Yellowstone required about 20 years of preparation in the face of fierce opposition from people who thought the world was better without wolves.

John Varley, who was Yellowstone’s chief scientist through the 1980s and 1990s, oversaw much of that work. Because it was so controversial, he knew the park needed to take the time to explain how this could work without the sky falling. Some could never be convinced, but the case had to be made.

“You’ve got to get the public ready for this,” Varley said. “So that’s what we did.”

Bishop was a key player in that effort. As the park’s resource interpreter, his job was to explain science to people, to translate the intricacies of an immensely complex place. Wolves became a big part of his job, and he learned all he could about them. He wound up giving about 400 presentations around the country, making the case for bringing back the carnivore.

“He had kind of a road show,” Varley said.

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