When Lewis and Clark reached Cascadia 200 years ago, wolves ranged across most of the Rocky Mountains and Pacific Northwest. But within a little more than a century, ill-advised “predator control” schemes extirpated wolves from nearly their entire historic range. So the West went wolf-less until the mid-1990s when small populations were re-introduced into Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho.
What a difference a decade makes. Wolf populations boomed, and their range expanded dramatically in just 10 years. Today, an estimated 850 wolves inhabit Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, far exceeding biologist’s original expectations. In fact, a couple of summers ago I was lucky enough to encounter a pair of wolves while backpacking in a remote area of Idaho. (I won’t tell you where.)
Not only do wolves help to return the wilderness to its natural wildness, but ecosystems are regaining their health. In Yellowstone, for instance, native trout populations are bouncing back to historic levels because the fish flourish in tree-shaded rivers. And the trees are growing back because elk and beavers now fear to linger by streams where they make easy targets for wolves.
Today, the Department of the Interior announced that the states of Idaho and Montana will take over wolf management from the more stringent federal government. The upshot? It will be easier to legally kill wolves. Officials expect that wolf populations will contract, dulling the luster from a shining wilderness success story.