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Doug Smith | Photo By RONAN DONOVAN
Douglas W. Smith
Senior Wildlife Biologist
Yellowstone Center for Resources
The Complications of Wildness
After a 70-year absence, 41 wolves from Canada and northwest Montana were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park between 1995 and 1997. Numbers grew, meeting management targets; and wolves were delisted in 2009 (except in Wyoming), but were then relisted in 2010, delisted again in 2011, delisted in Wyoming in 2012, then listed again in Wyoming in 2014. It’s complicated. Everything with wolves is that way. Most people rate wolves among the most controver-sial wildlife to live with; a colleague from India rates them as more controversial than tigers—a species that occasionally kills people.The back and forth of listing and delisting does not affect the status of wolves in the park—they’re protected either way. It’s untrue that they are immune to influences from outside the park, but some refer to wolves in Yellowstone as “country club” wolves or wolves that live in a world of fewer conflicts. That may be partially true, as the park is managed as natural, unlike the human-dominated landscapes found elsewhere where wolves run into trouble…and people, too. This idea of natural is important and has been a long-term park goal. It’s hard to imagine how this was accomplished without wolves.Does natural mean wild? Many consider wolves to be a symbol of the wilderness (grizzly bears, too); wolf-less landscapes seem to be missing something. Part of this dedicated issue on wolves is about what it means to have this wildness back. Another part of having wolves back is people. Visitor enjoyment has been a big part of their return—a sensation almost—a craving to see them, even know them. It’s something real in this contrived and digital age. Life and death. Real nature with no bars in between. Most don’t get this in our daily lives, so it can be a thirst slaked by only the real thing. There are not many places other than Yellowstone to go for this. Of course, there are other perspectives, such as the life and death of a wolf is better left up to humans.And this, in a nutshell, is the problem wolves have: wildness in a modern age. Wildness is hard to manage for, and people have divergent views on the subject. Ecologist Paul Errington called it “the pricelessness of untampered nature.” But we like to tamper. Thoughts like these stem from fundamentally different world views, which come from people’s values. Somehow wolves have been, and continue to be, caught in the middle. It seems impossible that anything like this could be resolved. But we try. We have the park, which is all of ours. And we have policy that says we need to keep it natural…whatever that is. But you can be sure that includes wolves and their kind, which is why this beloved place is different. It’s wild, now especially. This edition of Yellowstone Science is dedicated to the last 20 years of wolf recovery in Yellowstone. We hope you enjoy this view into the complicated, rewarding world of bringing wildness back.