. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hour of the Wolf Tolls Anew

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyoming -- It was a classic kill, captured on videotape.


Two gray wolves from the Crystal Bench pack, part of a group of 15 captured in Canada and transplanted into America's oldest national park last year by federal wildlife biologists, loped into a herd of about 200 elk in Yellowstone's Lamar Valley.


Ignoring healthy animals just yards away, they picked out a more distant cow with a slight limp and quickly brought her down.


A metatarsal bone from that elk now rests in the ramshackle office of Mike Phillips, project leader for the park's wolf re-introduction program. It is markedly deformed, either from trauma or disease.


"A vivid illustration of the culling effect,'' observed Phillips of the two wolves' choice of the lame elk, the kind of instinctive hunting decision that reduces the predators' chance of being injured and strengthens the elk herd by weeding out weak individuals.


It has been almost a year since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service embarked on an ambitious and controversial plan to bring wolves back to the northern Rocky Mountains. Phillips and his colleagues judge it an almost unqualified success as they prepare to bring in another 30 or so wolves.


The wolves have adjusted to their new surroundings, have begun to restore the predator/prey balance without killing livestock, have started to multiply and have been good for the tourism business.


The wolves released in Yellowstone, and a similarly sized group set free in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area in central Idaho, are doing what wolves are supposed to do: exuberantly exploring their new surroundings on long scouting jaunts, pairing up, having pups and making life more difficult for the weak and the sick among elk and deer herds unaccustomed to these ruthlessly efficient predators.


Along with about 80 other wolves that have re-colonized northwest Montana on their own, the wolves released in the re-introduction program are filling a biological void in the interior West that has existed since a government-led extermination effort eliminated the last gray wolf from the region more than half a century ago.


So far, despite the fears of ranchers who fought for years to block the re-introduction program, neither the Idaho nor Yellowstone wolves have attacked any livestock, although one of the Yellowstone packs late last month killed a hunting dog during a foray well beyond the park's boundary.


The incident, not unusual when wolves encounter their domesticated cousins, sparked protests from Montana politicians and residents who complained that park personnel -- unable to do their regular radio tracking of the pack because of bad flying weather -- had not sounded an alert that the wolves had ventured outside Yellowstone.


The wolves have fared slightly less well than the livestock. Two have been shot -- a Montana man awaits sentencing in one of the cases. Biologists have lost track of two more wolves in Idaho, probably because they have been killed or their radio collars malfunctioned.


But the remaining wolves have more than made up for those losses. The female mate of the Yellowstone male that was shot gave birth shortly afterward to eight pups, bringing the park's total wolf population in the first year to 24. She has since taken up with a young male who has assumed leading status at a much younger age than is common in typical packs, which usually contain more adult males.


The group is known as the Rose Creek pack, or Gang of Ten. In addition, six of the lone wolves set free in Idaho have paired up and may mate this winter.


Ed Bangs, who heads the wolf-recovery program for the Fish and Wildlife Service, soon will supervise the shipment of another batch of wolves -- now being trapped and radio-collared in British Columbia -- to Yellowstone and Idaho, the second installment in what is intended to be a three- to five-year wolf-recovery program.


Opposition to the program among Western members of Congress remains high, as it did throughout a lengthy public-review process that included dozens of hearings and the solicitation of 160,000 comments from the public, the most exhaustive environmental review in the history of the Endangered Species Act.


The reaction of many Yellowstone visitors has been more positive. Yellowstone is famous for its lavish displays of wildlife, and the wolf packs that frequently spend long periods in the Lamar Valley area have become a prime attraction for visitors, who now rate wolves as the No. 1 animal attraction, displacing grizzly bears for the first time.