DATE: January 12, 1995
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 1-13-95):
CONNIE CHUNG: The pack is back.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 1-9-95):
PETER JENNINGS: The wolves are coming.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 1-24-96):
BARRY SARAFIN: Restoring a long missing link to America’s oldest national park.
NARRATION: In 1995, the federal government made headlines with a grand and controversial experiment. Bringing endangered gray wolves back to central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park.
ROGER O’NEIL: It will close a chapter that some think was one of man’s ugliest campaigns to exterminate an animal.
DOUG SMITH (NATIONAL PARK SERVICE BIOLOGIST): Some people call wolf restoration to the northern Rockies of the U.S. the most significant and greatest wildlife conservation success story of the 20th century.
NARRATION: And that’s when the real battle began.
LISA UPSON: (EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, KEYSTONE CONSERVATION): It was unfortunate that more of us did not think harder about the potential for the backlash.
RANDY NEWBERG: (HUNTER): From a wildlife standpoint, wolves are a smashing success. From a social experiment standpoint, the wolf reintroduction has been a disaster of the greatest degree. And we’re going to pay for that in years to come.
NARRATION: It started with a bold idea to reverse an age-old trend — reintroduce wolves to their former hunting grounds in the mountainous West. By the 1930s the government had killed off Yellowstone’s wolves – capping off decades of government eradication campaigns that nearly wiped out the animals nationwide.
ED BANGS (WOLF RECOVERY COORDINATOR, U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE): When we got rid of all the wolves it was seen as a tremendous accomplishment, that finally the West was safe for livestock, and people, and agriculture. And the idea of bringing wolves back, you know, 80 years later, is like, ‘So are you telling me my grandfather was wrong?’
NARRATION: Environmentalists saw the predators as a means to restoring the wild heart of the West.
LISA UPSON: Wolves and other wildlife represent something that we value and hold so dear which is wilderness, mystery, something that we want more of in this world and that we are terrified that we’re losing so much of.
NARRATION: But ranchers worried wolves would take a bite out of their livelihood.
WOLF OPPONENT: We just don’t want ‘em here!
NARRATION: To accommodate both sides, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service came up with a plan under the 1973 Endangered Species Act. They proposed a goal of three interbreeding wolf populations with a minimum total of 300 wolves in all.
ED BANGS: The analogy is the emergency room. Species is gonna go extinct, you wheel them into emergency you save the life, once they stabilize you move them back out into just regular care.
NARRATION: The plan amounted to compromise on both sides.
LISA UPSON I would like to see a wolf on every hill, but I’m a pragmatist.
NARRATION: Lisa Upson first joined the wolf fight as a wildlife advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
RANDY NEWBERG: I listened to all the arguments on one side, on the other.
NARRATION: Randy Newberg ranks among the most visible of Montana’s 150,000 hunters, starring in a series on the Sportsman Channel.
RANDY NEWBERG:As a hunter I thought, you know,we can handle this, as long as the agreement’s followed, this isn’t the end of the-end of the world.
NARRATION: In 1995, wolves captured in Canada arrived in Yellowstone to great media fanfare. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbit personally helped release some wolves into one-acre pens, where they spent several weeks before going free.
ARCHIVAL (POOL INTERVIEW, 1995):
BRUCE BABBIT: You can see her inside, she’s a big gray female, just gorgeous. It’s an unbelievable sight.
NARRATION: Biologists reintroduced 66 wolves altogether in 1995 and 1996. But as the packs spread out and multiplied, some ranchers outside Yellowstone say it wasn’t long before the wolves exacted a price from their livestock.
JIM MELIN (RANCHER): $60,000 the first couple years, between the sheep we lost, the calves we lost. Every time that those wolves come in here and take a part of my living away, that means I have to make it up somewhere else.
NARRATION: By 2002, more than 600 gray wolves were roaming the mountains of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming – double the minimum number set in the recovery plan.
ED BANGS: We knew, from wolf population growth and that kind of stuff, that we would hit our recovery goal most likely at the end of 2002. And we were exactly right, we did.
DOUGS SMITH: Within about 10 years, which is actually pretty fast, wolves hit a level where we thought their population was secure.
NARRATION: So the federal government proposed starting the process to take wolves off the Endangered Species List in the Northern Rockies they wanted to hand wolf management over to state game departments if states could come up with appropriate plans — but environmentalists weren’t convinced.
TIMOTHY PRESO (LAWYER, EARTHJUSTICE): What we had was a fragile recover that there was every reason to believe was going to be put in reverse as a result of state management.
NARRATION: Environmentalists also argued that recovery was never just about the numbers. They said more wolves were needed for the populations mix successfully – a key goal of the federal plan.
LISA UPSON: I felt that recovery had not occurred We weren’t there yet.
NARRATION: So a group of environmentalists sued the federal government to stop it from making any changes to the wolf program at all.
LISA UPSON: The environmental community mobilized very quickly. Circle the wagons and putting a lot of resources towards the issue.
ARCHIVAL (DEFENDERS OF WILDLIFE COMMERCIAL, 2009):
ASHLEY JUDD (ACTRESS): Help Defenders of Wildlife save Idaho’s wolves I’m Ashley Judd for Defenders of Wildlife.
HAL HARRING (CONTRIBUTING WRITER, HIGH COUNTRY NEWS):The wolf advocacy community, they made a strategic error early on . The recovery of the wolf was an Endangered Species Act success story and at some point, the fears of the hunters and the ranchers became realized when the lawsuits came in to say that no, the wolf was not recovered at all.
NARRATION: In fact, the lawsuits kept the Rocky Mountain gray wolf on the Endangered Species List for years.
ED BANGS: And so what happens, through all these delays, the wolf population continues to grow. So you’ve got more wolves in more places, and wolves always cause some conflicts. All of a sudden you had hunters who had stayed on the sidelines saying, ‘Holy moly, I’m not seeing many elk here anymore. All I see is wolf tracks.’
RANDY NEWBERG: The wolf numbers are now past 150, they’re past 250, they’re past 400, they’re past 500, and we still don’t have state management control of wolves, as was promised to us 15 years ago. We’re now left standing there looking around saying, ‘You can’t trust this process.’
NARRATION: By 2010, the wolf population had reached more than 1,600 across the northern Rockies. And the mounting losses on cattle ranches set off a drumbeat of coverage on the news.
ANCHOR: For some ranchers that means a threat exists right in their own backyards.
ARCHIVAL, (CNN, 7-17-07)
RANCHER: I didn’t want them here in the first place. No other rancher did. Why are we taking the brunt?
NARRATION: One Montana rancher outside the town of Dillon reported losing 120 sheep to wolves in a single night. Matt Cunningham’s cattle losses weren’t as steep, but he said staying ahead of the predators was a constant battle.
MATT CUNNINGHAM (RANCHER): You know, I lived with these cattle pretty much year round. If I turned my back for a minute—literally a minute—I had wolves coming in. It was absolutely insane.
NARRATION: With the hunting and cattle lobby in an uproar, wolves became a defining political issue.
ARCHIVAL, (CAMPAIGN AD, 2012):
JON TESTER: I took on the Obama administration to put Montana back in charge of wolves.
ARCHIVAL, (CSPAN, SPEECH ON HOUSE FLOOR):
DENNY REHBERG: The science says that the gray wolf is no longer endangered in Montana and Idaho. But powerful, out-of-state interests have huffed and puffed and used all sorts of dirty tricks.
ARCHIVAL (GUBERNATORIAL CAMPAIGN AD, 2012):
NEIL LIVINGSTONE: We can manage our own wildlife issues here in Montana – and tell the feds to go to hell.
HAL HERRING: I was noticing that formerly very reasonable people were beginning to despise the Endangered Species Act, the wolf recovery, the whole thing. It became a metaphor for overreaching federal power and that metaphor was very powerful.
NARRATION: Powerful enough that in 2010, two Western congressmen stepped in and did something unprecedented. They attached a rider to an unrelated federal budget resolution. And the language legally removed wolves from the endangered list in five western states. When the measure passed the following year, it was historic.
HAL HERRING: I thought it was an incredibly dangerous thing to do. We had an Endangered Species Act, which to me, is one of the most visionary laws the United States of America ever made. And all of a sudden we had Congress deciding that this animal doesn’t belong on it anymore.
NARRATION: Some worry that Congressional interference in the wolf fight could open the door to a future where politics rather than science determines which animals stay on the endangered list.
LISA UPSON: I think we were all so busy stridently supporting our campaign and we didn’t look at the big, bigger picture. And so, you know, all of a sudden it was like, wow, this could go very badly and it did.
NARRATION: Since 2010, members of Congress have introduced bills, riders or amendments individually targeting more than ten species protected under the Endangered Species Act. The measures proposed everything from weakening safeguards for animals to removing species from the endangered list entirely. No species has come off the endangered list so far but the legacy has a few environmentalists questioning their tactics during the fight for wolves.
LISA UPSON: It was really clear that the potential for backlash was upon us. I think it blew up in our face.
NARRATION: The battle continues in Wyoming, where a federal judge recently ruled the states management plan was inadequate and put wolves back on the endangered species list there. Meanwhile, Montana regulates hunting of its more than 600 wolves to keep pack populations above the federal minimum, but away from cattle. Which means Matt Cunningham’s dawn patrols are turning up fewer wolf tracks in his calving pasture.
MATT CUNNINGHAM: It has made a huge difference for us. Two or three years ago there were wolves here that I had named. Every day they were the same ones. And they were always the troublemakers. And, like I say, those are the ones that were the first ones to go when they opened up the hunting season.
NARRATION: And whatever the cost, and however messy the means, federal biologists say the end result has been a recovered species.
DOUG SMITH: Wolf recovery to Yellowstone is a National Park Service success story. It’s been painful to a lot of people, but this was not a scientific project to determine the best way to restore wolves, it was a project designed to restore wolves any way we could. It’s a great example of where struggle can take us.