We pass several outfitters’ horse camps late in the afternoon and pitch our tent on a bluff that burned during the 1988 fires. Already, seedlings have turned into brilliant green, 20-foot saplings standing tall among the blackened totem poles of their ancestors. The tranquil, outwardly simple beauty of the scene, which conceals a still-not-fully-understood ecological and evolutionary complexity, evokes an almost religious feeling in me. Given even half a chance, nature is astoundingly resilient. Leave it alone, and it will rebound all on its own.
That night, well after dark, gunshots wake me. Night hunting is illegal, but no one is out here to witness it.
In the morning, we carry on along the Thorofare River. Another pack train passes. More trophy antlers, more dudes, but I notice that the saddlebags look practically empty.
“Where’s all the meat?” I ask Gaillard. “They had five sets of elk antlers, but the saddlebags were flat.”
Gaillard smirks. “The bears have learned to follow the hunters,” he says. “They come south out of Yellowstone during hunting season. We thought it was just to eat the gut piles, but now we know that some of the hunters are illegally leaving most of the carcass and just hauling out the antlers. A gunshot has become like a dinner bell for the grizzly.”
Late in the afternoon, we finally slip into Yellowstone National Park, where hunting and trapping are prohibited, and stroll up to the Thorofare Ranger Station. Built in the 1920s, this is the most remote cabin in all the national parks outside of Alaska. A tiny, quaint log bungalow with a sloping front porch, set amidst tall grass and even taller pines, it’s the kind of place Ed Abbey would have holed up in to write a howling treatise. Ranger Frank DeLuca, a good-natured former New Jersey firefighter, invites us inside.
“More than 3 million people visit Yellowstone every year,” says DeLuca. “But you know what?” He pulls off his green, flat-brimmed ranger hat, revealing a bald head, and grins. “Probably not more than a hundred get back this far.”
He’s interested to hear what we’ve seen. We tell him about the pack trains and outfitters and dire bear warnings.
“We’ve had to kill six grizzlies this season,” DeLuca says reluctantly, “all because of hunter/bear encounters.”
“We haven’t seen a single one,” I volunteer.
“Well then,” says DeLuca, “I guess you’re doing every-thing right.”
That evening, we traverse the wide Thorofare Valley, spooking up three bull elk that have intelligently stayed this side of the park boundary. At dusk, we ford first the freezing Thorofare Creek, then the icy Yellowstone River, our white feet going numb as blocks of wood. We camp on the far bank of the Yellowstone amidst enormous wolf tracks.
Wolves once roamed the entire continent, from Panama to Prudhoe Bay. Yet due to government bounties and extensive predator-control programs designed to support the commercial interests of a few ranchers, the last original Yellowstone wolf was killed in 1926. Exterminated from 80 percent of its natural range, the gray wolf was only protected by the passing of the Endangered Species Act in 1973.
“Wolves are wisely mistrustful of humans and avoid contact,” says Gaillard, brushing his teeth inside the tent and telling me what I already know: There has never been a documented case of a wolf fatally attacking a human in U.S. history.
Over the vociferous objections of ranchers, the wolf was reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park in 1995 and 1996. Not surprisingly, the 31 relocated Canadian-born wolves found their new home much to their liking. Thirteen years later, an estimated 1,250 wolves populate the Idaho-Wyoming-Montana region. As with the grizzly, the wolf program represents an impressive endangered species success story. Wolves bring the greater Yellowstone ecosystem back into some form of natural balance–admittedly human-managed–but guided by natural ecological principles.
“Wolves are a top-level keystone species,” Chuck Neal told me on the phone. “They are the principal predators in Yellowstone. Take them away and the ecosystem begins to unravel.”
A keystone species is one that directly impacts the entire ecosystem. In Yellowstone, the extermination of wolves caused the elk population to explode. Starving and diseased, elk chewed down the aspen saplings, which depleted the home-building materials of the beaver, reducing their numbers. Fewer beavers caused a change in riparian vegetation, which caused a drop in neotropical songbirds.
Everything is connected.
Like grizzlies, wolves require a sizable block of land to survive. The average range for a Yellowstone wolf pack is 350 square miles. Individual wolves searching for new territory to start their own pack can travel 50 to 70 miles beyond their natal range.
“Wolves searching for food regularly leave the park,” explains Gaillard, only his nose poking out of the sleeping bag. “In 2006, more than 25 percent of Wyoming’s wolf population was killed by ranchers or contract hunters hired by state or federal agencies to protect sheep and cattle.”
On March 28, 2008, as I was writing this story, U.S. Fish and Wildlife delisted the wolf as an endangered species and handed wolf management over to individual states. More than half of the Northern Rockies wolf population, some 650 animals, lives in Idaho, where governor Butch Otter publicly committed to reduce that number by 500–to only 150–through hunting. An in-state license costs $26.50. “I’m prepared to bid for that first ticket myself,” the governor told a rally of hunters in Boise last year. In the greater Yellowstone area of Wyoming, wolves are now designated as trophy game–hunted for sport, not food. In the rest of the state, they’re considered predators that can be poisoned or shot by anyone, at any time, no license or permit needed. In the first month after delisting, 37 wolves were slaughtered.