The date was Jan. 14, 1995, when Moon Star Shadow, a 90-pound, silver-tipped black male, stepped out of his cage at Corn Creek and urinated, marking his new territory in Idaho.
Moon Star Shadow and three other wolves released at the edge of the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness were the first of 66 wolves brought to Idaho and Yellowstone National Park from Canada in 1995 and 1996.
By 2009, the wolf population had grown to more than 1,500 in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming and today has spread to Washington, Oregon and Utah — even California and Arizona.
In 2011, Congress delisted the populations in Idaho, Montana, northern Utah, western Oregon and western Washington. That removed them from protections under the Endangered Species Act and led to wolf-hunting seasons. Today more than 600 wolves are thought to live in Idaho and the haunting howl of a pack of wolves is an almost common sound in Idaho’s back country, pleasing the people who pushed to restore them.
Idaho hunters and trappers harvest hundreds of wolves every year, but many complain that traditional elk-hunting areas no longer are as productive because wolves kill, move or stress the big game.
Ranchers have the right and means to kill wolves that attack their livestock, but they remain bitter that they aren’t compensated for losses that can’t be definitively linked to wolves. Ranchers also say elk and other big game are streaming out of the backcountry to raid their pastures and haystacks as they get away from the wolves.
But what if the federal government had decided not to reintroduce wolves to Idaho and Yellowstone in 1995?
Folks who love wolves would have fewer to see or hear. And the folks who hate wolves might have fewer options to manage wolves or kill wolves that come into contact with humans and livestock.
A mind of their own
Wolf biologists and managers who led the recovery program that began a decade before the wolves were released agree that Idaho would have wolves today, possibly hundreds, even if the reintroduction never took place. But they doubt that Yellowstone National Park — the place the public associates most closely with the new population of wolves — would have a wolf population today.
Wolves were moving on their own from Canada into Montana and Idaho, beginning in the 1960s. But a lack of safe corridors for the animals between Northwest Montana and Yellowstone would have hindered or stopped natural recolonization of wolves from Canada there. Today, 400 to 450 wolves live in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem.
“There would be wolves in northwest Montana, there would be wolves in central Idaho, but I doubt we would have more than a few (scattered) in Yellowstone,” said Ed Bangs, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gray wolf recovery coordinator in charge of the reintroduction.
They were reintroduced under a legal provision that allowed relaxed rules for an “experimental population.” That enabled federal officials to kill wolves that repeatedly attacked livestock and exempted officials from requiring that every federal action in the habitat be shown not to hurt the wolves.
That approach was based on the premise that there was no wolf population — no breeding pairs — in the areas targeted for reintroduction.
As the wolf population in British Columbia and Alberta grew in the 1980s, several packs showed up in Northwest Montana, making that area ineligible for reintroduction. Many wolf sightings also were reported in Idaho.
An Idaho plan
The drive for reintroduction in Idaho came from Republican U.S. Sen. James McClure.
McClure believed the return of the wolf to Idaho was inevitable. He wanted to put in place rules that would protect ranchers from the powers of the Endangered Species Act that restrict the killing of depradating wolves and other management. In 1988, he proposed federal legislation that would have reintroduced a few packs and stipulated that no wolves would be allowed to live outside of Yellowstone and Idaho’s wildernesses. His bill would have restricted wolf expansion more tightly than did the final reintroduction rules.
“He wasn’t a wolf-lover,” said David Mech, an internationally known wolf biologist who was one of the early voices for reintroduction.
McClure not only feared the costs to ranchers if more wolves showed up in Idaho. He believed loggers, miners and recreationalists would end up facing stricter limits under the full powers of the federal Endangered Species Act.
Ranchers weren’t convinced.
Brad Little, who today serves as Idaho’s lieutenant governor, came from a long line of sheep ranchers. In 1988, he was active with the Idaho Woolgrowers and an opponent to McClure’s bill, which went nowhere because of strong opposition from Wyoming ranchers and lawmakers.
“He was pretty darned convinced that his bill would have been far and away superior to what we eventually got,” Little said.
The return of wolves forced Little, like most ranchers, to change the way he operates. He gave up private grazing leases in the Cascade area due to the rate of depredation on his cattle. But he said ranchers in Custer and Lemhi counties that deal with the largest wolf populations have had the hardest time maintaining their livelihoods.
“The central Idaho ranchers are in the same place that the West Coast loggers were with the spotted owl,” Little said.
‘The sweet spot’
Suzanne Stone, now with Defenders of Wildlife, was contracted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife in the early 1990s to look for wolves in central Idaho.
Stone soon learned how difficult life would be for wolves in Idaho, both then and now. Biologist Steve Fritts was teaching her to howl in 1991 near Warm Lake east of Cascade.
“On my second howl, we literally (had) rifle bullets go over our heads so close I could hear them whistle,” Stone said.
She wanted reintroduction to be called augmentation, because she knew wolves already were living in Idaho. But she also believes that if the naturally moving wolves had been given the full protection of the Endangered Species Act, we would have wolves in Idaho, Yellowstone and at least Wyoming without reintroduction.
The wolf recovery program today would not be as divisive, Bangs said, had the delisting occurred several years earlier — before wolf populations had reached their peak and affected so much livestock and big game.
“We lost the hunting constituency because of that,” he said.
Steve Alder agrees.
Alder heads Idaho for Wildlife — the group that sponsored this month’s wolf- and coyote-hunting derby in Salmon.
“From our perspective, (the delay in delisting) really got people rallied,” he said.
So what ended up happening?
Wolves captured in northern Alberta were released Jan. 14, 1995, after a federal judge lifted a temporary restraining order.
In Idaho, the 35 wolves simply were released from cages into the wild.
At Yellowstone, packs captured together were kept in enclosures to allow the animals to acclimate to their new environs. The enclosures were opened in March and the wolves reluctantly left to take over their new home. More wolves were released in 1996.
From the beginning, Idaho’s great wolf habitat — lots of undeveloped spaces and lots of food such as elk and moose — meant that the wolf population grew faster here than anywhere else.
By 2001, the Idaho population had reached the 10 to 15 breeding pairs that federal biologists said was necessary for recovery.
After years of debate, lawsuits and failed efforts to remove Idaho wolves from protections under the Endangered Species Act, Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson added a rider to a fast-track federal budget bill in 2011. The rider inserted language to allow Idaho and Montana to manage