By: Randy Tucker
It is the point of the spear when it comes to federal intrusion in the American West. The wolf has come to epitomize the arrogance of easterners when it comes to life in the Rocky Mountains.
The introduction of Canadian timber or gray wolves into the greater Yellowstone ecosystem in 1996 was, in the minds of many people living in Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana, akin to an invasion.
The widespread myth that wolves did not exist at all along the backbone of the Rocky Mountains was often disproven with photographs and recorded sightings of Canis Lupus wandering the draws and foothills of the Rockies.
Indigenous prairie wolves were often spotted between Togwotee Pass and the entrance to Yellowstone and Grand Teton in the early 1980s.
The prairie wolf can grow to 75 pounds, while the gray wolf is a huge predator reaching 175 pounds.
None of these facts mattered as eastern environmentalists sought to balance the out-of-whack ecosystem in Yellowstone and surrounding areas. The elk population was booming in the parks, driving bison and moose out of their habitat areas, and white-tailed deer were infringing on the elk themselves.
Brucellosis, a disease that can cause domestic cows to abort their calves, is rampant in elk and easily transmits itself to cattle grazing on the same range.
These issues were all factors in the initial wolf reintroduction plan.
“When the wolves were reintroduced in the mid 90s, it didn’t take long for them to reach where I live, off the Shoshoni National Forrest,” outdoor writer and television personality Jim Zumbo told me.
Zumbo lives outside Cody, Wyoming on the edge of the national forest and has seen many changes in moose and elk populations over the last two decades.
“We used to see 10 to 15 bulls every winter,” Zumbo said. “When the wolves came, those elk disappeared. I attribute that to wolf predation.”
Wolves largely disappeared in the 1930s under heavy hunting and trapping pressure, but a few isolated wolves survived.
With the population in decline and the absence of a predator, moose and elk lost their natural defensive capability over the intervening 80 years.
Canadian wolves, with their own unique hunting instincts, were then brought into Yellowstone, and the effects on America’s two largest members of the deer family were dramatic.
“The primary prey for the wolves when they came from Canada was moose,” Zumbo said. “The moose didn’t evolve over the last decades with wolves, so they didn’t have an escape strategy.”
Wolves are incredible hunters and capable of roaming hundreds of miles in any direction; their speed, power, and destructiveness in packs is legendary.
As result of the unpredicted success of the wolf over the last 20-plus years, the moose and elk have dwindled in their original habitat.
Isolated areas of river valleys up to 200 miles from Yellowstone now see huge increases in moose population as they seek refuge from wolves.
Agricultural areas near Cody and Lander, Wyoming used to see occasional herds of elk during extreme winters, but now herds are staying with cows calving for the first time in recorded history on the farms and ranches outside these small communities.
Safety is relative, and the herding changes are evidence of Wyoming’s shoot-on-site law in about 85 percent of the state. Wolves outside the boundaries of a designated trophy species near Yellowstone are considered varmints and can be taken by anyone without a license.
Wolf hunters prefer the popular varmint calibers of .243, 22-250, and 6mm, but there are no guidelines as there are with other big game for what is and is not a legal caliber.
“The ranch lands along the Yellowstone highway have elk for the first time in 33 years. You can see them in the valley any month of the year,” Zumbo said. “I think the elk have learned if they move to the winter range, they won’t see wolves.”
“Surplus kills” is the name given for mass killings done by wolf packs. One pack killed 17 calves and two cow elk in 2017 near Pinedale.
People supporting wolf reintroduction claimed it was not done by wolves, but 19 dead animals surrounded by wolf tracks with only a small amount of meat consumed says otherwise.
From October 1 to December 31, 2017, Wyoming had its first wolf hunting season since 2013 in the area 75 miles around Yellowstone. The state sold 48 licenses, and this year, added another 10 to the harvest limit.
Grizzlies occasionally kill a domestic cow or calf, and coyotes are notorious for killing sheep and snagging baby pigs, but wolves are a major threat to livestock.
Kelly Gardner, a rancher almost 180 miles from Yellowstone, lost a calf to a wolf four years ago near Shoshoni, Wyoming. Gardner has spotted wolves seven times in the years since, with most running solo or in packs of two or three.
One wintry morning he was looking for lost cattle south of Moneta, Wyoming and spotted a coyote high-tailing it across the prairie. As he cleared a ridge, he spotted a pair of wolves chasing the coyote. Predators eat other predators in the west.
A little reported trend occurring in Idaho is mountain lions killing and eating solitary wolves or taking a wolf out of a group of two or three.
A full wolf pack is the match of any predator and would kill a lion or even a grizzly, but lions are very adaptable animals, and wolf is now on the menu.
Lion hunters use dogs to run and tree the big cats, but lion hunting is on the decline in wolf inhabited areas as well.
Wolves despise domestic dogs and kill them on sight if they can. Wolves now listen for the sound of a pack of hounds pursuing a cougar and close-in on the dogs before the hunter can catch up. Wolves have killed entire packs of hounds and eaten the dogs before their handler can intervene.
Cattle, moose, deer, lions, and dogs are all affected in different ways by the introduction of wolves not native to the Yellowstone area, and as the wolf expands its hunting area, the effect expands as well, like ripples from a stone tossed into a pond.
Randy Tucker is a retired history teacher and freelance writer from western Wyoming. He has a lifetime of experience in farming, ranching, hunting and fishing in the shadow of the Wind River Mountains. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.