Sagebrush and brittle grass danced at my feet as I squinted through a spotting scope.

From a distance, the lumps in Yellowstone National Park looked like rocks. But rocks aren’t usually all the same size, and they certainly aren’t jet-black around here. I sucked in a big breath. A pack of nine wolves huddled on the wind-scuffed ridge. All but one were curled into balls in the snow, noses to tails, blissfully unaware of the commotion their presence brings.  

Reactions to these wolves, and the thousands of others in the West, vary widely. Do they imbue a sense of awe, frustration or hatred? Are they seen as part of an ecosystem worth protecting? A threat to livelihoods? Colliding perceptions exist where the wolves lay, and spiral throughout the region. How humans feel about wolves influences the species’ existence in Colorado, where a ballot initiative mandates reintroduction by early next year; the Pacific Northwest and California, where populations are growing, expanding and sometimes getting into trouble; and the Northern Rockies, where wolves are restored and hunted.

Doug Smith, a wolf biologist in Montana, was hired to reintroduce wolves into Yellowstone National Park in the 1990s. | Max Lowe for the Deseret News

Wolves have historically been subject to the whim of strong emotions, policy pendulum swings and lines on a map. They’ve been vilified and romanticized; illustrated as “bad” — or, at the very least, idealized as a wild thing symbolic of going it alone. The perception of wolves serves as the subject of classic literature, rock songs and fairy tales. But the reality of wolves in the U.S. today hinges on embroiled politics. Can they be a part of daily life in the West? Today, packs like this one in Yellowstone are caught in the middle of everyone trying to decide what they think is right.

Bringing them back

Roughly 500,000 wolves lived in what’s now the western U.S. before colonizers arrived. But decades of extermination efforts began as settlers and their livestock pushed towards the horizon where the sun sets. Newcomers to the land shot and poisoned wolves — including park managers in the newly-christened Yellowstone National Park. “They were here first,” says Wes Martel, the former chairman of the Fish & Game Committee for the Shoshone & Arapaho Tribes. “Can you imagine saying to a wolf, ‘You don’t belong here’? We try to explain it but most people don’t get it.” Other predators like bears, cougars and coyotes met a similar fate. By the middle of the 20th century, only a few pockets of wolves eked out an existence in Minnesota and a remote island chain in Michigan. Wolves were almost entirely gone from the contiguous U.S. 

So what would wolf populations look like if settlers and the government had never interfered? It’s hard to say since other integral components of the West — bison, beavers, Indigenous people — were removed at the same time wolves were. The landscape and its inhabitants were permanently altered. “To answer that question from just the wolf perspective is super hard,” says Doug Smith, a recently retired senior wolf biologist in Yellowstone National Park. “All those elements are tied in there.”

They were here first. Can you imagine saying to a wolf, ‘You don’t belong here’?

We know with more certainty what the West would look like ecologically if there were still no wolves. Wolves eat elk, deer and bison — which, in turn, eat vegetation. Removing predators knocks that balance out of whack. “Predators control the prey, so the prey don’t eat themselves out of house and home,” Smith says. One wolf kills an estimated 16 to 22 elk a year (diets vary by season). In Yellowstone, that figure could translate to wolves eating approximately 10 to 15 percent of the elk population that summer in the park. “If we didn’t have wolves, we would be in a complete mess of wildlife management,” says Kira Cassidy, a research associate with the Yellowstone Wolf Project. What wolf kills accomplish on a larger scale is still unknown: does killing an elk shrink the overall population, or does it make it more likely another elk will live with less competition for resources? It’s likely a little bit of both.

Fourth-generation sheep and cattle rancher Kim Kerns has had multiple livestock deaths due to wolf attacks. | Alyssa Henry for the Deseret News
Fourth-generation sheep and cattle rancher Kim Kerns has had multiple livestock deaths due to wolf attacks. | Alyssa Henry for the Deseret News

This understanding that wolves are keystone members of interconnected ecosystems helped shape a U-turn in the government’s approach to their presence. The Endangered Species Act passed in 1973, required the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to restore eliminated species if possible. Wolves in the Lower 48 were listed as endangered in all states (except Minnesota) by 1978. 

But wolves have never known nor respected human-drawn boundaries on a map. Canadian wolves began slinking across the border and reestablishing breeding packs in northwestern Montana in the 1980s, and by 1994, between 50 and 60 wolves lived in the state.

Official efforts to bring the species back included the capture, relocation and release of wolves from Canada into Yellowstone and central Idaho in 1995. Author and retired wolf interpreter Rick McIntyre points out the Crystal Creek reintroduction site — tucked in a river bottom, surrounded by evergreen-dappled hills — when I join him on his daily wolf-watching excursion one morning in February. “We realized we messed up, and we fixed it,” he says of reintroduction. Packs still den in nearby cliff bands and hillsides today.

One wolf kills an estimated 16 to 22 elk a year (diets vary by season). | Kira Cassidy/NPS for the Deseret News

Celebration and frustration greeted the wolves’ return to the Northern Rockies. Tensions were high and further stoked with inflammatory rhetoric. Former Montana Sen. Conrad Burns famously warned there’d be a dead child within the year. There were no dead children, but there was dispersal to neighboring private lands, which led to fears of conflict with livestock. Dean Peterson, a fourth-generation cattle rancher outside Wisdom, Montana, became aware of wolves near his property within a few months of their release elsewhere in Idaho. “I never wanted them,” Peterson says. “I knew it was going to cost me time and money to live with them.” He believes he’s lost about 20 to 30 head of cattle to wolves since then. 

The value of an animal

The fears of ranchers and livestock owners are often grounded in practicality. Fourth-generation sheep and cattle rancher Kim Kerns runs livestock east of Baker City in Oregon’s sagebrush, grasslands and forests. One April morning in 2009, her father, uncle and cousin woke to a horrific scene. “There were dead and dying sheep everywhere,” Kerns says. “Their bodies were like Jell-O … their rib cages were smashed. There were sheep with sucking chest wounds wandering around.” 

So began a stressful spring and summer at Kerns’ ranch, which became ground zero for wolves expanding their territory into the state. Wolves picked off dairy goats in front of their home, and in September, killed about 30 lambs and ewes, plus a neighbor’s calves. “It’s an incredibly emotional investment to have in that livestock,” Kerns says. “It is really, really hard to see them be in pain or dead.” 

The Kerns were paid $3,000 to compensate for their losses  — a common policy that states, and in this case, Defenders of Wildlife, a private nonprofit, utilize to reimburse ranchers after a confirmed wolf kill. But, Kerns explains, the payments don’t equate to the “real cost” of losing an animal, and can give the impression that losing an animal to a wolf kill is easily remedied.  It’s hard to calculate the real value of an animal with generational knowledge, Kerns says — it knows where the grass and water are and can pass that down to youngsters. “It’s not just a one-time loss,” she says. “It’s the loss of that animal’s entire life.” 

Family-owned ranches are already struggling, squeezed by rising costs, development pressure and giant agribusiness. Wolves add a layer of unpredictability. Experimenting with what works and what doesn’t to keep livestock safe adds stress to an already stressful profession. Surrounding sheep at night with electric net fencing works best for Kerns, who initially got materials from the Fish and Wildlife Service but has purchased it for herself at $600 numerous times since (turns out, lambs love to chew plastic). Peterson helped bring a range rider to his watershed to monitor herds over a decade ago. Kerns and Peterson also both use livestock guardian dogs. “We spend a lot of time and money managing this one predator that we didn’t really ask for,” Kerns says.

There’s no cure-all for preventing conflict and kills, but easing conflict often happens by tapping into rural peer networks. “If they’re not socially supported, it’s not gonna get off the ground,” says Matt Collins, an associate at the Western Landowners Alliance. Maybe somewhere between harmony and hell-bent elimination, there’s a way to live with wolves. “It’s finding that hard-fought middle,” Collins says.

“The hatred I see in people’s eyes is just as bad now as I saw back when I started out as a young kid.”

But in the moment, the middle can seem far away. Ranchers across the West tell similar stories of wolves reclaiming areas they hadn’t been in for decades. While waiting for the sun to rise one morning in March 2005, Peterson’s dog wouldn’t shut up. When he opened the front door to quiet it, two wolves were chasing cows nearby. “I just went to the closet, got a gun, leaned over the fence … and I shot,” Peterson says. State and federal officials determined the kill was legal; since then, Peterson’s killed other wolves harassing cattle and hunted and trapped in season on his property. “I don’t blame them,” he says. “They’re trying to survive. What I’m trying to do is protect my livestock and do it legally.” 

Peterson’s approach to sharing the land with wolves today looks like getting involved in state rulemaking and management decisions. He wants to be part of the solution. “It’s an old saying,” he says. “But if you’re not at the table, you might be on the menu.” 

The hunt is on

Descendants of the wolves that were reintroduced into Yellowstone in 1995 have expanded their range tenfold. According to the International Wolf Center, packs are now known to be in Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Alaska — as well as still in Wyoming and Montana. The Center also records that lone wolves have been documented in Utah, Colorado and 10 other states from Missouri to New York. Today, these wolves exist in a reality that varies by location and the agency in charge. Protections are splintered in places like Utah, where wolves are only delisted in a northern pocket, and Wyoming, where wolves are considered vermin in all but the northwest corner.

Retired wolf interpreter Rick McIntyre believes that wolf presence in its natural habitats, like Yellowstone National park, helps re-establish balance in the ecosystem. | Kira Cassidy/NPS for the Deseret News

Wolves are also affected by variable regulation on tribal lands, where their range overlaps with dozens of ancestral homelands. Some tribes are open to hunting on their reservations. The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation first allowed wolf hunting in 2012; now tribal hunters can hunt unlimited wolves year-round. But numerous tribes in the West asked for more federal protections in 2021. Martel, the former chairman of the Fish & Game Committee for the Shoshone & Arapaho Tribe, helped develop and implement the Wind River Tribal Water and Game Code. It doesn’t allow wolf hunts. “We’re trying to protect our relatives,” Martel says. “With the natural law of reciprocity, if you take care of us, we take care of you.” He considers state wolf hunts to be anti-Indigenous. 

Legislation in Idaho and Montana expanded wolf hunts in 2021 with the intent to drastically reduce populations. Hunters then killed more than 500 wolves in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming last winter, “numbers not seen since the animals were driven to near extinction,” according to Science.

Kira Cassidy, a research associate with the Yellowstone Wolf Project, maintains that without wolves, wildlife management in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem would be more difficult. | Max Lowe for the Deseret News

The controversy over changes to wolf hunting is acutely felt at the border of Montana and Yellowstone National Park, where river drainages and mountains funnel wolves and their prey into well-known choke points just over the boundary. Yellowstone’s park border is spread across Idaho and Wyoming, but more packs exist near Montana, and the Wyoming border is remote wilderness. 

As a result of the Montana legislation, formerly-strict quotas in the hunting zones just north of Yellowstone skyrocketed, and 82 wolves were killed there during the 2021-2022 hunting season. Despite a lawsuit temporarily halting the hunt, 25 Yellowstone wolves were shot or trapped when they strayed outside the park — one wolf was brought down in Montana by one of the park’s own backcountry rangers. Quotas were lowered to six wolves this winter, with four of the dead wolves originating in Yellowstone. Smith, who lobbied for the reduction, called this the type of compromise that’s often hard to find with wolves. No one is completely happy with the outcome. 

Changes to Colorado’s wolf policy are also taking heat. For the first time ever, a ballot initiative, not federal action, is prompting reintroduction. Voters passed Proposition 114 on slim margins in 2020. Starting in 2024, between 30 and 50 wolves will be released over three to five years west of the Continental Divide. After more than a dozen meetings and thousands of public comments, Colorado Parks and Wildlife released a draft plan for the reintroduction, which is slated for approval this month.

But disagreements over how much the state should pay ranchers who lose livestock to wolves, recreational hunting and lethal force reveal unresolved divides. Filed and anticipated lawsuits over the wolves’ protections and classifications in the state could delay paws on the ground for years. A pair that moseyed over the Wyoming border into North Park, Colorado, last year, had pups, and then started killing cows and dogs, isn’t helping tamp down fears of what’s to come. Establishing viable packs doesn’t just mean bringing wolves into the state — it also means making sure they can survive.

“Predators control the prey, so the prey don’t eat themselves out of house and home. If we didn’t have wolves, we would be in a complete mess of wildlife management.”

Retired biologist Smith has been on the front lines of anti-wolf sentiment for over four decades. “The hatred I see in people’s eyes is just as bad now as I saw back when I started out as a young kid,” he says. Wolves are far from the West’s only predator, but they remain more controversial — a devil or an environmental poster child, depending who you ask or who’s at the podium. “Wolves are such an environmental-value laden lightning rod,” Smith says. He’s found peoples’ perceptions of wolves often come from how they’re raised, who their friends are, what their culture is — similar to other polarizing issues, often driven by social identity and emotion. “How do you feel about abortion? How do you feel about climate change? How do you feel about wolves?” he said. “All three of those things are together.” 

Unpacking those feelings means going back in time. Wolves are highly mythologized creatures. They’re mentioned numerous times in the Bible: “ravenous,” “savage,” snatching sheep. They’re mainstays of villains in fairy tales like Little Red Riding Hood and The Three Little Pigs. Bears are portrayed in a different light in American culture. Think Goldilocks and the Three Bears, teddy bears and Smokey Bear. Grizzly bears and wolves both share a history of Endangered Species Act protections and court battles, and in turn, can symbolize government overreach. But while recent delisting attempts are stirring the pot, grizzlies were never put back onto the landscape by federal agencies like wolves were.

Smith has worked to reduce the numbers of wolf hunting quotas in Montana, knowing that compromise is difficult to come by. | Max Lowe for the Deseret News

 Wolves will always be subject to symbolism — sometimes, even two sides of the same coin. For many, they represent wildness. But which version? Something to pine for in a digital age, or something to control and dominate, the same attitude as the frontier days? In Colorado, the ballot measure to reintroduce wolves passed narrowly, with a margin of 57,000 votes. But commissioners in 39 of the state’s 64 counties voted against the reintroduction. “You just have people battling over values and their politics inflating and heating up rhetoric,” says Adrian Treves, an environmental studies professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who founded the Carnivore Coexistence Lab. “It’s unfortunate because it robs us of the ability to deliberate on public policy in a calm, reasoned manner.”

Protecting what protects

Back in the scrubby sagebrush of northeastern Oregon, wolves force rancher Kerns to hold dueling perspectives. She understands their ecological value and doesn’t want them gone. But they’re also a source of immense frustration: at wildlife officials, who she feels aren’t following the state plan; and at the public, who she feels don’t understand the reality of living with wolves. “I don’t have a problem with wolves being on the landscape,” Kerns says. “I do have a problem with how wolves are being managed.” 

So what does the “hard-fought middle” look like when it comes to these high-stakes predators? Ricocheting between state management and federal protection increases tension and continually inflames old wounds, but at the same time, an all-or-nothing approach doesn’t appear to stick in the courts or in the public eye. 

It’s easier to point to what doesn’t work — like hard boundaries between protection and annihilation last year outside Yellowstone — than what does. If what doesn’t work draws outcry and indignation along entrenched lines, then what’s the opposite? Maybe the way forward involves an even bigger paradigm shift, integrating the idea of reciprocity that governs tribal wildlife management on the Wind River Reservation. “How do we protect and how do we take care of that which takes care of us?” Martel poses.

Jacob W. Frank/NPS for the Deseret News

 Maybe the middle is found somewhere in the hundreds of conversations about wolves taking place across the West. “When it’s gridlocked, you just stand on your side throwing hand grenades at each other,” Smith says. “If you’re actually talking … a lot of times you might not agree, but at the same time, you’re still talking.” Conversations continue as the clock ticks down in Colorado. But proof of a successful reintroduction isn’t just people with different attitudes towards wolves sitting down at the same table. It’s the chance to spot a pack of wolves curled up on a wind-whipped bluff or to hear them howl from out of sight. It’s wolves doing what wolves do, away from stories, town hall meetings and invisible boundary lines: survive.    

This story appears in the May issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.