The sun passes behind the broad slopes of the Grand Tetons, and the boundary between sky and earth blurs into smoky swirls of red cloud and cold steam. From a small bluff off the 191, Isaac Spotts scans the foothills for signs of predation, crouching and observing, intermittently raising his camera toward the lightly forested face of the mountains.
The young photographer breathes deeply, considers relocating, then takes a final look across the range. Suddenly, it appears — a lone gray wolf, walking slowly, nose to the wind.
Twenty years ago, no such encounter would have likely occurred. Long demonized by ranchers and hunters, wolves had been purposefully hunted into oblivion across the U.S. by the early 20th century. In Yellowstone National Park, just 60 miles north of the Tetons, wolves were completely eliminated by 1926. Their decimation influenced a cascade of changes to the ecosystem, including an explosion of elk and coyote populations that traumatized the vital riparian areas accustomed to a particular balance of predator and prey.
Spotts watches as the striking black canid descends into a small thicket of aspens. He returns to his car and drives deeper into the park, turning onto a dirt road where the wolf appeared to be heading.
One of approximately 347 that presently reside in Wyoming, the wolf Spotts is trailing is a descendent of the Northern Rocky Mountain Wolf Recovery Plan, a program that led, in 1995, to the re-introduction of 66 gray wolves to Yellowstone and Central Idaho. The efforts successfully established a slowly recovering but fragile population across areas within Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana, with a small pack of seven recently discovered (for the first time in 80 years) in Northern California.
Spotts pulls to the side of the road and waits. Half an hour passes as he quietly eyes the forest. To his continued surprise, the wolf emerges from the tree line, just 30 feet away.
Inhabiting a mere 15% of their historical range, the renewed presence of this integral apex predator has had measurable effects: strengthened herds, improved vegetation, and an increase in species diversity. In Yellowstone Park alone, reintroduction of gray wolves has resulted in new willow and aspen growth, and a rise in beaver, bird, and fox populations.
Yet, the value of the wolf as a keystone species is still questioned, and the existence of the Rocky Mountain-area wolf population still threatened. Ranchers, farmers, and politicians continue to argue that wolves severely affect livestock operations, though less than 1% of sheep deaths reported by ranchers in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho can actually be attributed to wolves.
This hasn't kept federal legislators and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from consistently attempting to remove the protections granted to wolves by the Endangered Species Act of 1974. In April of this year, after decades of back and forth in the courts, they successfully confirmed the delisting of wolves from the Endangered Species List.
That means if Spotts wanted to shoot his wolf with a gun instead of a camera, he could. The Tetons are part of a designated “trophy area” where wolves may be seasonally hunted. Across the other 80% of Wyoming, wolves can be shot on sight, indiscriminately, without permit. In Idaho and Montana, legislators have passed bills that drastically increase hunting and trapping quotas.
Sadly, the survival of these profoundly important animals is mired in an ongoing conflict between ecological data and political obfuscation. That's why Jacques Marie Mage has partnered with The Yellowstone Park Foundation and Living With Wolves, two compassionate science-driven organizations working to sustain gray wolf populations. With their guidance, we hope to contribute our voices and resources to proactively protecting these canine guardians of the western frontier.
Click here for more on J.M.M.'s philanthropic efforts, and here for an interview with photographer Isaac Spotts.
Sources: Living With Wolves, Sierra Club, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Wyoming News
“Wolves are very resourceful. All they need to survive is for people not to shoot them.” — Bob Ferris, American author and conservationist.
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