Comeback Wolves: Inside Lamar Valley Wolf Week

Joel Sartore

The revered—and sometimes reviled—gray wolf has made an unprecedented resurgence within Yellowstone National Park. Austin Merrill joined a group of Lamar Valley Wolf Week obsessives to learn what’s behind one of America’s greatest environmental success stories.

We headed east through Lamar Valley at dawn, on our third day searching in vain for the famous wolves of Yellowstone National Park. It was cold again. The past several days had been strangely mild for March in northwest Wyoming, perhaps explaining some of our bad luck. With the snow melting earlier than usual, we’d lost much of the white backdrop that normally made wolves so easy to see this time of year.

But this was Yellowstone, home to the most successful wolf restoration project in the world. It was Wolf Week, and I was with nearly 20 people who had traveled thousands of miles to see and study the animals in their ideal habitat. For years I’d been reading about wolves during summer trips to visit family in northwest Montana—how some people cherished the animal as a symbol of a long-lost wilderness, while others raged against it as a scourge on the landscape, ghostly elusive one moment, preying on their cattle the next. Seeing wolves in upper Montana was nearly impossible. The experts I sought out all had the same reply: Go to Yellowstone.

So here I was, at the end of Wolf Week, and we hadn’t seen a thing. It was unheard of to not see wolves during the five-day event—it had never happened before.

“The cold is good,” said Brad Bulin, one of our guides. “Animals with coats designed for 40 below are more likely to be moving around.” Bulin, 48, is a Wisconsin native who helped start Wolf Week in 2011.

We pulled off at an overlook called Picnic and everyone peered through the van’s windows. Soon a woman from England said she saw a dark shape moving on a rise amid the shrinking packs of snow. Bulin put up a spotting scope. A silencing hand went up—was that a howl? Chatter came through the static on the guides’ handheld radios as wolf watchers elsewhere in the area began checking in.

Bulin didn’t seem convinced that there was anything up there, but no other promising news had been heard that morning. He pulled the radio from his belt and reported the sighting.

This is Lamar Crew Unit 108. We’ve got people who saw something black to the north on the ridgeline at Picnic.

Two seconds later, a response.

Copy. Will move that way.

Wolf watchers are the wildlife equivalent of rock-band groupies. Many are retirees who spend months of the year driving through Yellowstone to track the animals. They know the packs, the names of the wolves in the packs, their favorite hunting grounds, and more. The money they’ve spent on high-tech spotting scopes and camera gear isn’t the half of it—some have even bought homes in the area so they can be closer to the animals.

When the wolf restoration project began, no one had anticipated this level of obsession. Perhaps it had something to do with the animal’s social nature: Unlike grizzly bears or cougars, wolves were brazen predators that seemed eager to be seen, whether they were playing with their pups, lying lazily in a pasture, or chasing down an elk for the kill. And people came in droves to watch them, sometimes clogging Yellowstone’s roadways but always acting as ambassadors for the wolves and the park’s efforts to protect them. They spread the good word. Wolf-watching in Yellowstone is an economy worth an estimated $35 million a year.

About ten cars materialized and parked near us. People poured out, setting up spotting scopes and leaning into their binoculars. Many of the regulars were there, but so too were college students. A group from the University of Washington was in the park that week. Another group had come from Yale. A young woman conducting research for the park walked around the cars while waving an antenna in the air, hoping to catch the signal from a wolf collar. “This is how we look for them,” she said, her mouth bent in an apologetic smile. “It’s not been a good week.”


NPS/Neal Herbert

Wolves have not always had such a strong fan base. Once upon a time they were the dominant predator in North America, with a population of perhaps half a million west of the Mississippi. But as the frontier of the United States moved west, the animal increasingly came into conflict with people. In the 1880s, Teddy Roosevelt, who would go on to become the foremost conservation president in American history, called wolves the “beasts of waste and desolation,” echoing how most people felt about the animals at the time. Even in Yellowstone they were unwelcome. When the park was established in 1872 as the first national park in the world, predator control was the law of the land. Rangers shot the park’s last wolf in 1926.

Society’s trouble with wolves was never based on their threat to human life, despite the ways they are depicted in cultural folklore like “Little Red Riding Hood.” Wolf attacks on people are very rare, and in fact cougars and grizzly bears, with whom they share habitat, are far more dangerous to humans. Even so, wolves have long been more reviled than other predators.

“The way the world works is based on killing—for humans too,” said Doug Smith, director of the Yellowstone Wolf Project and the park’s senior wildlife biologist. “Why wolves got picked out as bloodthirsty killers I’ll never know. But their killing seems to be all bad, while other species’ killing is just part of life.”

It was a hatred born of overlapping interests. Wolves preyed on livestock and hunted the very same deer and elk that humans hunt. “We’ve always competed with them,” Smith said. “They’ve killed what we wanted.” In the 1800s this competition had a direct impact on the livelihoods of settlers. By the mid-20th century the gray wolf—native to Eurasia and North America and distinct from subspecies in the South and Mexico—was nearly gone from the U.S., most of them poisoned to death.

Things began to change with the 1973 Endangered Species Act. The gray wolf was now protected, but the few remaining animals had little chance of thriving in a modern American Northwest dominated by humans. Yellowstone, at nearly 3,500 square miles, much of it ideal habitat for wolves, was exactly the kind of vast controllable space needed to bring the wolf back. After years of hopeful planning, Smith helped launch the park’s wolf recovery project, releasing 41 wolves from Canada and northwest Montana into Yellowstone between 1995 and 1997. It was a resounding success, hailed by many as the greatest conservation triumph in history.

But it has also sparked controversy. The park’s wolf population reached a peak of 176 in 2003, and since 2009 has stabilized at around 100. (At the end of 2016, the count was 108.) That’s about the right number of wolves for Yellowstone’s size, and their recovery has happened alongside a resurgence in cougar and grizzly numbers as well.

The higher number of carnivores has led to a drop in the elk population—from a peak of around 19,000 in 1994 to about 5,000 today. The mid-’90s elk herds were artificially large, due, in part, to a lack of predators. But since Yellowstone is not fenced, the size of the elk population has a direct impact on recreational hunters in the region, and many are not happy about the lower numbers. Smoke a pack a day, reads a popular bumper sticker in the area, next to a wolf in the crosshairs of a rifle sight.

“A high-end elk hunt in this region is $6,000 to $7,000 a week,” Smith said. “There’s no question it’s hurt outfitters.” But, he added, elk populations in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming are at historic highs overall, even with the lower numbers around Yellowstone.


James Leynse / Getty Images

Chad Krahel, an avid hunter who lives in Bozeman, Montana, just north of the park, has mellowed on wolves over the years. He’s 50 now, and most of the wolf-hating he hears comes from younger hunters. “I love the fact that wolves are out there,” Krahel told me over a pint of beer near his home. “You hear a wolf—it gives you a feeling of the wilderness. It’s why we go out there.” Wolves help cull weak or sick elk, he said, and he thinks the hunting community increasingly understands that a balance between elk and predators is healthy. He also thinks some hunters can be lazy and use wolves as an excuse. “Maybe the wolves make the elk act more like elk—a little more reclusive—so we have to actually hunt for them,” he said.

Krahel lives near several ranchers, one of whom lost four cows to wolf attacks in recent months. Wolves preying on cattle remains a source of frustration for ranchers, but they’re to blame for less than 1 percent of livestock losses industry-wide. “Occasionally there’s a ranch that will get what we call chronic losses—it’s just in a bad spot,” Smith told me. “And I’d be one of the first to say you’ve got to kill those wolves. But some ranchers I talk to are more concerned about elk than wolves, with elk taking grass from their cows. So it’s not a clear-cut issue.”

The long-term viability of wolves and other animals hinges on the question of how to manage wildlife that lives in human-dominated landscapes. “Yellowstone is a small outpost in what used to be a sea of wilderness,” Smith said. “People think it’s big, but in the context of a large ecosystem, it’s a postage stamp.”

Outside Smith’s office, just out of sight, elk grazed on a hillside. The grass shouldn’t have been so plentiful yet, even though it was the first day of spring. Climate change has shortened winter by about a month over the last 25 years in Yellowstone, Smith said—another challenge to the creatures that call the place home.

“Life is richer, healthier, if we have some native carnivores in the mix,” Smith said. “They can’t be everywhere. There are good places for wolves, and there are bad places. What I’m trying to do is preserve the good places.”

Might it be possible to create more of those good places? Mike Phillips, a former colleague of Smith’s at Yellowstone, thinks so. Phillips is a wildlife biologist, a wolf expert, and the director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund, based out of Bozeman. He and his Turner colleagues have teamed up with other groups to form the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project, a nonprofit working to educate the people of western Colorado about the benefits of wolf recovery. The project’s goal is to restore Colorado’s wolf population to plug the gap between Yellowstone’s wolves and the wolves that live in the American Southwest. “That would be the capstone of it all—the restoration of the gray wolf from the high Arctic to the Mexican border,” Phillips said. “We don’t have to accept the fact that the planet is so humanized that there’s no room for gray wolves. That’s crazy.”

After several minutes looking through spotting scopes and binoculars in the Lamar Valley, Brad Bulin decided there was nothing to see on the ridge-line. He consulted with the other guides and picked up his radio again.

It’s been a while now. I’m guessing they moved on to the north. Might be best to head back west.

Copy that.

We drove off. “Looks like good wolf country up there, all those bull elk,” Bulin said with a last look into the hills. A low stripe of clouds had moved into the valley. “The most highly contested wolf territory in the world, some might argue.” He shook his head and dropped his face into his hands. A few minutes later he picked up his radio again.

Unit 1, Unit 108. We’re gonna head west toward Slough. Do you have anything?

No.

We drove farther west, to Elk Creek. On the drive, Bulin told us wolf stories. But now that our last day of Wolf Week was well under way without any sightings, he seemed more agitated than ever. “I don’t know how I stay optimistic,” he said with a laugh. “I should be crying right now.”


Guy Edwardes / Getty Images

At Elk Creek I trained my spotting scope on Junction Butte, part of a 2 million-year-old lava flow from the Yellowstone supervolcano. We had hiked the few hundred feet to the top of the butte the day before, a warm afternoon that had been full of premature signs of spring—buttercups blooming amid new shoots of grass, bluebirds and robins flying among aspens and Douglas firs. Overhead a raven had made a ruckus when a peregrine falcon flew by. At the top of the butte, after a brief snack, we’d stopped to look at a small blue egg that had fallen from a tree and landed in a bone field—skull, ribs, and vertebrae, all bleached white and scattered about.

Bulin joked about our next move. “Anything else you want to try?” one of the other guides asked. “Well, instead of a rain dance, can we do a wolf dance?” he replied. Then his radio came to life.

Unit 1, this is 50. We have them.

“Pack it up quick!” Bulin shouted. We jumped in the van and headed back east to Lamar Valley. “Here we go, like storm chasers!” He monitored his radio to decide on a vantage point.

When we finally came back into Lamar Valley, Bulin had us stop at a pull-off called Coyote. The wolves were more than a mile away, across the Lamar River and lying among sage bushes on Jasper Bench, with a few bison grazing below them. Bulin moved quickly from one spotting scope to the next, helping to point them in the right direction. Soon it was like group play-by-play at a sporting event, with everyone calling out what they were seeing.

“The black one just stood up! Now he’s back down!”

“The gray one is moving again! To the left through the sage!”

Mostly the wolves just lay there. Tired, perhaps, from a hunt. We counted seven in all. Then, a sigh of relief: “That took a while,” Bulin said, and he high-fived the other guides. The woman from England and her friend from Greece jumped up and down in an embrace. And a stream of cars found places to park along the side of the road and unloaded excited passengers. It had been a wolfless week for everyone.

It had gotten colder since the morning, and I shivered as I watched the animals through the scope. The clouds had moved out of the valley floor, but the sky was still heavy and gray. A light snow began to fall.

The next morning everyone packed up and left. Wolf Week was over. On my way out I saw a group parked again at Coyote, so I stopped. I met an older couple from southern Wyoming who make the thousand-mile round-trip to Yellowstone to watch wolves five times a year. They offered their spotting scope to watch a black wolf that was walking high on a ridgeline to the west. The previous day’s scene repeated itself, with people describing what they were seeing as they watched through their scopes. “He’s down from the rock, walking right to left... Now coming onto a snowfield... He’s in the sage brush, heading to that boulder...”

Then everyone went silent as the wolf slipped over the ridge and out of sight. “And there he goes,” someone said. “He’s gone.”

I thanked the couple and took one last look over Lamar Valley. Then I got in my car and drove off, heading west. 

Lamar Valley Wolf Week will have three sessions in 2018: March 5–9, March 12–16, and March 19–23. Days combine lectures and twice-daily outings to look for wolves. The cost is $780 and includes very simple lodging. To book, call 406-848-2400.