The Return of the Native

As usual in January, snows cradle the lodgepole pines that dot Yellowstone's Lamar Valley, and herds of shaggy bison and elk have moved down from the highlands to forage in Lamar's rolling hills. But last week Yellowstone was a very different park than it was a week before, and a year before, and even decades before. For the first time in 50 years, the mythic gray wolf -- vilified as a bloodthirsty predator; poisoned; shot; doused with gasoline; drawn and quartered and otherwise slaughtered to make the northern Rockies safe for cattle and sheep -- had come home. The arrival of the eight wolves, captured in Canada, is an "extraordinary moment" in the history of the park, said Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.

Right to the end, the wolf was treated like the last of the West's great outlaws. After more than 150 public hearings, $12 million in scientific studies and 160,000 public comments, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service received the green light to implement a wolf "recovery plan." In November the agency began paying Canadian fur trappers $2,000 to slip radio-collars onto wolves in Alberta. Federal biologists planned to follow these "Judas wolves" back to their packs and capture 15 for release into Yellowstone and 15 into Idaho's Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness around Thanksgiving (map). But the American Farm Bureau Federation, representing ranchers, filed suit to stop the reintroduction. On Jan. 3, a U.S. district court in Cheyenne, Wyo., rejected their arguments, and 12 captured wolves -- eight bound for Yellowstone and four for Idaho -- left Alberta a week later. A last-minute injunction kept the creatures confined to their 2-foot-by-3-foot-by-4-foot traveling cages for more than 24 hours, but finally an appeals court lifted the last legal obstacle, and the wolves stepped onto the grounds where 100,000 of their ancestors were slaughtered.

The Yellowstone 8 are confined to one-acre pens, to acclimate them to their new territory, until they are released to breed next month. So while they are not technically back in the wild yet, mere details pale next to the potent symbolism of their return. The four wolves released in Idaho were truly free, bounding into the snows to -- federal biologists hope -- settle in and find mates. Barring more legal setbacks, the F&WS will release 15 more Canadian wolves to Yellowstone and Idaho annually for the next three to five years. By 2002, with reproduction, 100 wolves could roam Yellowstone. They will kill about 1,200 of the park's near-record populations of bison (4,000), deer (30,000) and elk (60,000) every year. (Absent a natural predator, thousands of the ungulates have starved during tough winters, and there has been no selection pressure to keep deer fast and moose powerful.) The wolves will also, as ranchers fear, sometimes dine on lamb chops and veal -- they're expected to kill up to 20 cattle and 110 sheep every year. The wolf, claim opponents, is "the Saddam Hussein of the animal world."

The reintroduction is one of the few times the Endangered Species Act has been used to return a top-of-the-food-chain predator to lands from which it had been eliminated. But equally significant, it incorporates the most people-pleasing compromises in the act's 22-year history. Private citizens are permitted to shoot dead the wolves caught killing livestock, and federal officials can remove any that threaten humans or herds. To make the return even more acceptable, conservationists put their money where their ideology is. Private donations paid for the chain-link fence around the Yellowstone pens. And Defenders of Wildlife has pledged to pay for any livestock killed by the wolves (the group has given about $17,000 to more than 20 ranchers in Montana and Alberta since 1987).

Proponents of the wolf's return say it will bring in an additional$20 million in tourist income every year, as visitors flock to hear the call of the wild. But the reintroduction is not about increasing tourist revenues, any more than it is about "saving" wolves. There are 6,000 wolves in Alaska and 55,000 in Canada, so the species is not about to go the way of the dodo. Returning wolves to Yellowstone and Idaho is, rather, "a symbolic act, just as exterminating them in the West was a symbolic act," says Renee Askins, director of The Wolf Fund. The wolf had been the only native animal missing from Yellowstone. But Canis lupus has also come to stand for the overwhelming changes buffeting the West -- suburban sprawl, attacks on federally subsidized grazing on public lands, a shift from a Marlboro Man culture to one of cappuccino bars and ranchettes. Powerless against these forces, ranchers seized on the wolf as one change they could, perhaps, prevent. "The wolf became a vehicle for [grappling with] the profound value shifts occurring in the West," says Askins. Civilization eliminated the wolf, for ranchers' benefit, and thus tamed the wild a half century ago; now it is letting go. As Askins asks, "Can't we have one place in America that is whole? One place that is still wild?" Last week, finally, the answer was: yes.