Wolves may not need Big Brother

  • Wolf drawing

    Diane Sylvain

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, The wolves are back, big time.

Some veteran wolf biologists call the designated federal restoration a big mistake.

"They don't need to reintroduce wolves," says Diane Boyd, who for the past 15 years has studied wolves as they have migrated down from Canada and naturally recolonized the Glacier National Park ecosystem in northern Montana. "The wolves are doing it themselves. There's wild wolves all around Yellowstone."

Boyd has had the experience of watching and studying wolves as they naturally recolonized much of northwestern Montana. In 1979, Boyd and other researchers captured a lone female in a remote drainage just west of Glacier Park; now eight packs live in northern Montana, and the wolves are moving south to fill up vacant ecological niches.

"Wolves disperse," she says, "and they breed like rabbits." (Wolves produce one litter a year, with from three to 14 pups, depending on the quality of the habitat.. There is only one breeding pair in each pack - the "alpha wolves." )

Wolf sightings have been verified near Deer Lodge, Mont., 100 miles or so north of Yellowstone, and a wolf was shot there. Molecular DNA tests show it was related to wolves from northern Montana. A wolf was shot at Fox Creek in Wyoming, south of Yellowstone; another animal Boyd is certain is a wolf was filmed in Yellowstone.

Sharing Boyd's view is Robert Ream, a wildlife biologist who directed the study of wolves on the North Fork of the Flathead River on the park boundary. Park Service officials have said they haven't found wolves, but Ream says they haven't been looking hard. "People pushing for reintroduction have so much invested, it's hard for them to back off."

A wild wolf population is far preferable, Ream and Boyd say, to one created by humans.

Once wolves are brought in by the federal government, Boyd says, "there are no more natural wolves in Yellowstone." All canids, even ones that have come on their own, will be intensively managed. "It becomes a political rather than a biological population. Once the government puts the wolves in, they have to manage them. Forever."

In natural colonization, Boyd says, "There is a really strong selective process at work. Wolves that go to Yellowstone choose to go there. They ran the gantlet to get there. They don't eat livestock; they avoid people. They stay out of sight. Those behaviors are really good to pass on."

Ream says it's difficult to predict how long it might take for wolves, left on their own, to establish a breeding population - a reproducing male and female. "It could be happening now. It could happen in a year. But I would expect it to happen somewhere within the next two to 10 years."

Based on her experience on the North Fork, Boyd also believes that a natural population makes a lot of sense from a social perspective. "The wolves up north trickled in," she says. "The locals aren't wolf lovers, but they got used to it. Big Brother did not shove the wolves down their throat. That makes a huge difference. You need the support of the locals."

Jim Robbins writes in Helena, Montana.

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