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March 05, 2008

Reflecting on Wolf Reintroduction

On January 12, 1995, at approximately 8:30am, the gray wolf returned to Yellowstone after a forced absence of some 70 years. I was there and I remember the profound joy and awe that we all felt as we embarked on this historic undertaking.

Rodger Schlickeisen attaches a radio collar to a wolf reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park
Rodger Schlickeisen attaches a radio collar to a wolf reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park

After years of legal wrangling and delays, wolves were finally back where they belonged. And people, who had driven them from these lands decades ago, had made it happen. The reintroduction of the gray wolf to the northern Rockies is a highlight of my conservation career. I know I am not the only person who was there that feels this way. That’s why I am deeply saddened now to see the progress and hope that was embodied on that day dashed by the premature decision to eliminate federal protections for these magnificent animals.

The reintroduction of the gray wolf is perhaps this country's greatest wildlife conservation success story. When Europeans first set foot in North America, the gray wolf – or Canis lupus – ranged the continent, from Mexico up to Canada and Alaska, and from the Pacific all the way to the Atlantic. By the 1970s, after three centuries of extermination, the wolf was essentially eliminated from the wild almost everywhere in the contiguous United States. Today wolves are making an amazing comeback in the lower 48 states, where they have provided indisputable benefits for both the ecosystems and the economies of the places they inhabit.

But their recovery is incomplete. There are still too few wolves, and they are too isolated to cope successfully with state plans that allow the killing of up to 70 percent of the current population.

The recent decision by the Bush administration to delist the northern Rockies wolf, while the state management plans of Wyoming, Idaho and – to a lesser extent – Montana are so woefully inadequate, puts the wolf in imminent danger once again. The decision is short-sighted and caters to the interests of those who are not looking at the big picture.

While Defenders is not against delisting the wolf – it is something we’ve been working towards for years – we strongly believe that such an action today is extremely premature when state management plans are so clearly anti-wolf, and not based on reality or the scientific evidence.

In a society where so many view nature as only an economic resource or obstacle, I take great comfort in the fact that the country so thoroughly supported the return of wolves to Yellowstone. It was truly a national phenomenon. And that overall support for wolf recovery remains undiminished to this day.

The best way to aid wolf recovery is to engage local stakeholders in effective partnerships that address the needs of humans and animals alike. That's why Defenders has put its money where its mouth is and supported programs that compensate for livestock losses, and why we work with ranchers to avoid future conflicts with wolves. These efforts have made a huge difference in wolf restoration efforts.

I am proud that Defenders has been such an effective advocate for the survival and recovery of such an important predator to the American landscape. But much of the progress that has been made is now at risk because of the Bush administration’s delisting decision. Such ignorance and wrongheaded thinking led us down a terrible road in the past. It is a journey we must not repeat.


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I just hope we don't end up back where we started when wolves were almost wiped out in the U.S. We're better than that today because I'd like to think we have a better understanding of these predators and see that the wolves can benefit us and our land. Everyone can learn to live with this "new" old addition to the West. The wolf was a natural part of the West when it was settled, and the wolf should be a part of the West forever. It just wouldn't be the same without it!


While many other countries all over the world have lost and continue to lose species at such an accelerated rate, the U.S. has success stories like the gray wolf and the bald eagle. It would truly be a shame to regress on successes like the gray wolf. I hope delisting does not equal extinction for these majestic symbols of America.

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