Wolves returned to the Yellowstone wild 20 years ago today.
I know, history remembers all the hoopla about reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone in January 1995, when federal officials and environmentalists celebrated the arrival of three packs immediately placed in what officials called acclimation pens.
I always called them kennels. Once these wild Canadian wolves, were placed in these large enclosures they didn’t want to leave.
So when the doors opened March 21, nothing happened.
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I was there for the week watching and waiting with wolf biologists, a few reporters and photographers, and Renee Askins, the remarkable conservationist who headed The Wolf Fund to bring wolves back to Yellowstone. She closed up shop on The Wolf Fund, which was a funding magnet, the day the doors to the kennels opened — ending a revenue stream that could have continued easily today without much effort.
But Askins formed the group to bring wolves back to Yellowstone and now they were here.
It wasn’t until Dave Mech suggested the wolves associated the door to the kennels with humans that biologists John Varley, Mike Phillips, Doug Smith and Steve Fritts decided to cut another hole to give them an alternate way out. Mech, the alpha wolf biologist in the second half of the 20th century, introduced me to Askins and Hank Fischer of Defenders of Wildlife in 1985 when they began their quest to return wolves to Yellowstone.
A sensor was placed on the new opening of the Crystal Creek kennel that sent a radio code when a wolf walked through it. I knew the code — “unit one, message one” — and gave it to naturalist Jim Halfpenny, who spent a lot of time out in the Lamar Valley near where all three kennels were located and had a park radio.
The biologists were having another one of their many meetings at park headquarters that morning trying to decide what to do next when Halfpenny called me. He had heard the signal “unit one, message one.”
I ran into the office and told the biologists frantically, “They’re out.”
The biologists didn’t want to disturb the wolves, which by the signals appeared to be going in and out of the kennel. Later that day Smith and Phillips headed toward the second Rose Creek kennel located in Lamar Valley to cut a new hole in the kennel there. As they dragged an elk carcass toward the pen they heard a wolf howl above the trail. It was the male of the pack, who had left the pen.
The next morning we all set up with binoculars and spotting scopes on the road overlooking the Crystal Creek kennel two miles away. On the hillside above the kennel we saw five animals jumping, rolling and playing together.
To this non-scientist it was obviously the Crystal Pack celebrating their freedom. But the biologists wouldn’t venture beyond what they knew for sure. All they knew is that the five were “canids.”
The bigger moment came for all of us that night as we drove past the Soda Butte Pack, which remained in its kennel.
As we watched, the entire pack joined in with a full-chorus howl, one of the first in Yellowstone in many decades. By the end of the month all of the wolves had left and the new drama about wolves and man in the West began in Wyoming, just as it had at Corn Creek in Idaho two months earlier.