In Yellowstone, wolves are easily the top dog.
It’s a winter day in Yellowstone National Park, and the coyote in front of me is clearly enjoying the spot of sunlight he has found on a hillside; his eyes take on a dreamy look as if he is nearly asleep. Suddenly his posture changes. His body tenses, his nose lifts, and a second later, he takes off at a full run, quickly disappearing into the woods.
Scarcely a minute later, the reason for his disappearance becomes clear: Four large wolves lope out of the darkness of the forest, their gaits purposeful. They stand in a row on the hillside and scan the landscape below, their ears alert as the wind ruffles their thick fur.
Even from my observation spot inside a park minibus, the sight of them makes the hair on the back of my neck rise, an involuntary response that seems to come from deep within. Later that morning, my guide explains my reaction: “We humans have had many thousands of years being prey and only a few [years] being predators. When we see a wolf, we remember what it’s like to be hunted.”
That moment of instinctive reaction is when I realize how different wolf-watching in the wild is from observing the animals from the comfort of my living-room couch. Over the years, I’ve seen plenty of nature documentaries on wolves with video footage of romping puppies, affectionate family members, and fierce battles between packs. But as fascinating as such footage is, it can’t compare to the visceral thrill that comes only from seeing a wolf in the flesh. For that, you need to come to Yellowstone.
There’s no better place in the world for wolf-watching than Yellowstone, which is home to about 120 of the animals. Wolves were reintroduced to the park in 1995 with a program that brought back the predator — a predator that had been systematically eradicated within Yellowstone’s boundaries and throughout the western United States during the first decades of the twentieth century. At the time they were eradicated, wolves were seen as threats to the other animals in the park as well as to the cattle beyond the park’s borders. As the years passed, however, park naturalists began to realize that a terrible mistake had been made. By removing the top predator from the Yellowstone ecosystem, the park had also removed a key link in the ecosystem’s complex web of life. And in some hard-to-define but significant way, the park also had lost some of its wildness.
“The reintroduction in 1995 was controversial,” says Shauna Baron, a biologist and instructor for the Yellowstone Association Institute. “Armed guards accompanied the animals as they came into the park. Many people were upset about what was being done, particularly local ranchers who feared for the safety of their herds.”
The reintroduction has been far more successful than most had dared to hope. The Yellowstone wolves have multiplied and thrived, and neighboring ranchers are beginning to realize that their own livelihood is not at risk as long as the park is properly managed. The wolves have had a cascade of positive effects on Yellowstone’s ecosystem. By hunting primarily old and sick elk, wolves have improved the quality of the elk herd. Grizzly bears benefit from the extra protein they get from carcasses left by wolves. Even the park’s plant life has been affected, as elk that formerly fed on the tender vegetation near rivers and streams now must be more vigilant and stay on higher ground. As a result, more trees and bushes now line waterways in the park, providing additional habitats for other species.
Equally significant has been what can only be described as the star power of wolves. “An estimated $35 million flows into the park and surrounding area each year because of the Yellowstone wolves,” Baron says. “People come from all over the world to see them, and some [people] have even moved to the area just so they can observe [the wolves] regularly. There’s something about wolves that fascinates people.”
Wolf-watching in Yellowstone requires a combination of patience and luck. My two sightings came while I was taking part in a program sponsored by the Yellowstone Association Institute. The first, which began with the flight of the coyote from the hillside, lasted about 10 minutes. The wolves had returned to the site of an elk carcass they had killed the day before. As they examined it for any traces of meat left behind, I could hear the rest of the pack howling from the forest, their voices haunting and mysterious in the chill winter air.
My other sighting occurred at a greater distance — more than a mile away — and lasted for 90 minutes, giving me a much more leisurely view into the dynamics of what is known as the Druid Peak pack. Through powerful spotting scopes provided by our guide, we watched 13 wolves running, roughhousing, and sleeping. When they finally headed over a ridge and the last wolf left my sight, I felt a sense of loss, for I knew I had been granted an encounter with something rare and precious.
Experiences like these keep drawing visitors to the park, and Yellowstone officials must strike a delicate balance between trying to satisfy the public’s insatiable curiosity about wolves and keeping the animals safe. “Wolves are naturally scared of humans, and we want to keep them that way, both for their safety and that of visitors,” says Nick Derene, program manager for the Yellowstone Association Institute.
Wildlife biologists say that the Yellowstone wolves have been far more visible than had been expected when they were reintroduced. The animals are tracked through visual observation and through the radio collars that at least one wolf per pack wears, making it possible for scientists to learn a great deal about wolf behavior in the wild.
“Up until 1995, almost all wolf observation had been done on caged populations,” says Rick McIntyre, a wildlife biologist who studies wolves in the park. “That’s like someone learning about human behavior by studying the inmates of a maximum-security prison. But in Yellowstone, we’re able to observe noncaptive populations in a way that has revolutionized our understanding of wolf behavior.”
In many ways, the return of wolves to Yellowstone marks a revolution in how the public views the animals. Western culture is full of myths and stories that demonize wolves, and throughout much of the history of the United States, wolves were feared and hunted. But gradually another perspective has emerged, one that recognizes that these fierce creatures possess remarkable strengths and intelligence and that they embody the wild in a way no other creature does.
As McIntyre stood with me looking at the Druid Peak pack on the hillside, he reflected on how much the park’s attitude toward wolves has changed in the past century. “Nearly 100 years ago, rangers were given the task of shooting the last wolves in Yellowstone,” McIntyre says. “And here we are, standing in the same spot where once they stood with guns, only now we’re looking at a pack that’s living completely free. It’s a wonderful thing to see these wolves thrive and realize how much our attitudes toward them have changed.”
How to Arrange a Wolf-Watching Trip
While any visitor to Yellowstone stands a chance of seeing a wolf, the odds are much greater for visitors who take part in a wolf-watching program sponsored by the park’s nonprofit Yellowstone Association Institute (www.yellowstoneassociation.org, 866-439-7375). Trained instructors lead people to areas where the wolves are likely to be found and give comprehensive introductions to the wolves’ behavior and to park ecology. Because observers should stay at least 100 yards from wolves, most viewing is done through spotting scopes or binoculars.
Wolf-watching programs are offered throughout the year, but the best time to view wolves is the fall, winter, and spring. The Winter Wolf Discovery program, for example, costs $649 per person, double occupancy, and includes four nights of lodging at Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel.