December 10, 2019

After nearly a century of rampant hunting and persecution, the last gray wolves disappeared from Yellowstone National Park by the end of the 1920’s, and the howls of these iconic predators faded throughout the western United States. Thankfully, the blinking out of that last pack was not the end of the story of wolves in the park.

Gray Wolf Yellowstone NP
Jacob W. Frank/NPS

This winter, we are celebrating the return of these awe-inspiring predators to the wilds of the West. Twenty-five years ago, everything changed when the first eight wolves were reintroduced to the park.

Rodger Schlickeisen at Yellowstone release
Defenders of Wildlife
Then-president of Defenders of Wildlife, Rodger Schlickeisen, helping with wolf releases in Yellowstone National Park.

When the crates opened, and the first gray wolves in 70 years finally stepped out into Yellowstone, we started on a journey towards restoring the landscape. Those first wolves became part of the fabric of the park and the beginning of one of the best-known success stories in conservation history. 

By the end of 1996, 31 wolves had been reintroduced, and the cascading long-term effects of bringing wolves back included abundant vegetation, healthy elk populations, increased beaver colonies and other ripples throughout the park. The ecosystem is balanced – thanks to the return of the wolf. Now, echoing across the mountains for miles, you can hear the howls the Junction Butte, Canyon and Mollie’s packs marking territory or communicating about their next hunt.

Lamar valley Yellowstone cottonwoods
Brad Orsted
Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park

Today, there are anywhere between 60-100 wolves in up to a dozen packs calling Yellowstone home and thousands of people visit every year hoping to catch a glimpse of gray fur loping across the landscape or hear a chorus of howls drift across the valleys.

Because of the persistence and passion of so many people, the dream of wolf recovery became a reality. Our enthusiastic members empowered Defenders to be a key player in wolf reintroduction. With their support we were able to put money on the table for a livestock compensation fund to alleviate the fears of local landowners. Our coexistence work also continues throughout the country today, paving the way for the return, not just of wolves, but also bears, panthers, and more, and increasing tolerance and acceptance of once again having predators on the landscape. 

Alpha female of the Canyon pack Yellowstone NP
Horsefeathers Photography

While an amazing transformation has taken place in areas like Yellowstone where wolves have returned, there is still much more to be done. Crossing the border of the park and stepping into states that allow hunting can spell disaster for a wolf. Since 2011, when wolves were removed from federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) protection in the Northern Rocky Mountain states, more than 3,500 wolves have been killed. And there are still repeated efforts to strip the gray wolf of ESA protection, even though the species only occupies 10% of its historic range. 

Time and time again, Defenders and our members and supporters step up. This year, over 1.5 million people across the country spoke out against the Trump administration’s proposal to remove protections afforded the gray wolf by the ESA. 

Wolf in Lamar Valley Yellowstone NP
Jim Peaco/NPS

With passion like this, we will be able to achieve great things for wolves and wildlife. Wolves should once again roam the entire spine of the Rockies – from Canada down to Mexico. While we celebrate the amazing anniversary of the return of wolves to Yellowstone, we need to keep an eye towards a future where the gray wolf is recovered. The next frontier is Colorado, and wolves won’t get there on their own. We are looking to history to guide and inspire us. With your help, we did it 25 years ago and we can continue the gray wolf’s story into another chapter and another state. To restore the howl of the wolf to the Centennial State, we are going to need your help every step of the way and as we celebrate this milestone anniversary, let it be a reminder that we can achieve great things together. 

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