Since 1995, wolves in the Northern Rockies have been a conservation success story well worth celebrating. The original Yellowstone wolves, along with naturally returning packs in northwest Montana, others released in central Idaho, and an additional 20 wolves released in the Northern Rockies in 1996, have naturally increased in numbers every year, expanding their range into places where prey and habitat could support them. Today, some 800 wolves exist in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming.
"I think it's been great for the region, and great for other people coming to visit this part of the country," said Pam Bryan, co-founder and vice chairwoman of the Off The Beaten Path, a Bozeman-based adventure travel business.
Already biologists are seeing the benefits to other wildlife and the land itself.
"Studies are beginning to indicate that wolves are preventing elk from over-grazing stream banks and aspen stands, resulting in more cover for song-birds and recolonization by beavers", said Mike Phillips, who directed
the 1995 wolf reintroduction for the National Park Service, and now directs the Turner Endangered Species Fund.
"Every time a wolf pack makes a successful hunt, the effects ripple through the ecosystem," he said. "Wolves are reshaping the Yellowstone landscape".
Since 1995, Yellowstone National Park has emerged as the premier wolf-watching location in North America. University of Montana economists estimate wolf-related tourism contributes $23 million to the gateway communities of Yellowstone National Park alone.
That pleases Bob Thompson and his wife Holly, who are General Managers of a group of rental cabins in Silver Gate, Montana, just outside the Park's northeast entrance.
"Every year we see more visitors from all over the world coming to see the wolves," said Thompson. "Wolves and the people who enjoy them have diversified the winter economy here, and are putting dollars in my pocket year-round."
"But our real pleasure comes from the experience our guests are receiving out of first-hand wolf-watching in the wolves' true environment," he added.
It took 21 years of planning to get wolves on the ground in Yellowstone. Ranchers feared wolves would kill their cattle and sheep.
The legitimate concerns of ranchers are being addressed by a program run by Defenders of Wildlife, a national conservation group, which created The Bailey Wildlife Foundation Wolf Compensation Fund to pay livestock owners the market price for proven losses to wolves. This program helped assure livestock producers, and since 1995, Defenders of Wildlife has paid more than $440,000 to ranchers who have lost livestock to wolves.
Before reintroduction, biologists predicted that losses to wolves would be very small. Actual losses have fallen well below even the low numbers predicted. Defenders also helps producers with projects to reduce wolf conflicts, including livestock guard dogs, remote alarm systems, aerial monitoring, alternative grazing, range riders, predator-resistant fencing, voluntary grazing allotment retirements, and more.
"We are proud to have played a decisive role in helping restore wolves back to the landscape," said Suzanne Stone, Rocky Mountain wolf representative for Defenders of Wildlife. "We appreciate ranchers who want to work in coexistence with wildlife and we will continue our efforts to reduce conflicts and builder greater incentives for these collaborative programs."
Some hunters feared wolves would cut into their opportunities to bag elk and deer, while others appreciate these large natural predators.
"Human hunters and wolves need the same thing -- healthy habitat and plenty of prey animals," said Ben Long, a Montana outdoor writer and lifelong hunter. "There's proving to be plenty of room in the West for a healthy balance of predator and prey. Wolves, like bears and cougars, make hunting here more exciting."
The benefits of wolves to western landscapes and communities would never have been realized had it not been for the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which provided the legal structure and funding for wolves to be reintroduced.
"The success of wolf restoration in the Northern Rockies reaffirms the value of the Endangered Species Act as a safety net for wildlife," said Jon Schwedler of Predator Conservation Alliance, a Montana-based conservation group that manages Range Riders, a program that pays and trains cowboys in non-lethal methods to prevent conflicts between wolves and livestock.
"Wolves are one of the most challenging species to manage, and we still have a little way to go before wolves are considered fully recovered in the Northern Rockies. But if wolves can be restored with the Endangered Species Act, it's a good bet any species can."
Defenders of Wildlife is a leading nonprofit conservation organization with more than 480,000 members and supporters and is recognized as one of the nation's most progressive advocates for wildlife and wildlife habitat.
Predator Conservation Alliance  is dedicated to conserving, protecting, and restoring native predators and their habitats in the Northern Rockies and Northern Plains. Since 1991, we have been saving a place for America's predators in America.
Contact(s):Brad DeVries, Defenders of Wildlife, (202) 772-0237
Jon Schwedler, Predator Conservation Alliance, (406) 570-3417