Yellowstone's Neighbors Are Howling Mad Over a Plan to Return Wolves to the Park

updated 09/24/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/24/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The Big Horn County Farm Bureau meets monthly in Basin, Wyo., and hardly anybody ever shows up—even when there's free beer. But the farmers and ranchers have come in droves tonight to hear Norman Bishop defend the U.S. Park Service's controversial plan to put wolves back in Yellowstone National Park, just 100 miles away. A Yellowstone Park ranger who wears a wolf belt buckle, Bishop. 57, considers himself a conservationist. But the farmers regard him as a tool for ignorant bureaucrats—mostly granola-crunching easterners—who want to bring the wolf back to Yellowstone to feast on their livestock and children.

"Why not invite the Mafia to move in next door?" asks sheep rancher Melvin Wambeke.

"We killed off the goddamn things once," says fellow rancher Butch Krause. "Now they want to bring 'em back. How about we put 'em in Central Park?"

The argument over the reintroduction of gray wolves into Yellowstone—hotly debaled for the past 20 years—has become even redder in tooth and claw thanks to a 356-page feasibility report recently submitted to Congress by the Department of the Interior. The report makes no recommendations, but it has inflamed the antiwolf camp with its conclusion that Yellowstone's abundant bison and elk can support the predatory wolf, which will not need to leave the park in search of sheep and cattle—much less children.

For the past five years, it has been Bishop's job to educate folks in the nearby ranching towns of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho about Canis lupus—-and to ease long-standing fears about it. Around the turn of the century, ranchers in the Yellowstone area contended that wolves started feeding on their livestock as the bison population declined. An extermination campaign, carried out with the federal government's blessing, ended when the last two wolves in the park were shot in 1926. But the government now says it made a terrible mistake. The wolf is no longer perceived as a menace, but rather a vital link in the Yellowstone ecosystem—a necessary predator that would trim the elk, bison and antelope populations that may be overgrazing the park range.

The Park Service's plan. Bishop explains to his stony-eyed audience, is to place 15 pairs of gray wolves in the 5 million acres that make up Yellowstone and the six surrounding national forest areas. The wolf population will not be allowed to expand beyond 150 over the next 30 years—excess wolves will be shot—and Bishop assures the fanners they have nothing to fear. He points out that 1,200 Minnesota wolves—one of the largest wolf populations in the U.S.—occupy an area far smaller than Yellowstone and rarely touch the livestock. He adds that in the 97-year history of Canada's wolf-filled Algonquin National Forest, only one person has been injured by a wolf—a little girl who shone a flashlight in a wolfs eye and was scratched. "The chances of anyone ever seeing a wolf in Yellowstone," he says, "are extremely remote."

The audience is not convinced. "In five years you're going to have 5,000 wolves," says Norman Wallingford. "They'll wipe the game out. Talk to the old-timers. They'll tell you about your data." Rancher John Haley is also incensed. "Bringing back the wolves," he says, "is an attack on our western way of life."

Indeed, the debate comes down to a question of values—a confrontation between the old and new West. The ranchers of Basin, who live in isolation along dirt roads that wind toward a pinpoint at the horizon, are fearful of outsiders tampering with their way of life. But Norm Bishop is a westerner too. Growing up in Denver, he learned to appreciate frontier values. He also made room in his ideal landscape for the wolf. "I'm a person who likes to look out over Yellowstone and sense its completeness," says Bishop. "It's the most intact ecosystem in the temperate zone of the world, but the one thing missing is the wolf. Yellowstone without the wolf is like a chess set without one player, a Mercedes without one spark plug, a Bach concerto without the trumpets."

Public opinion polls taken at Yellowstone and the University of Montana show most Americans agree that the wolf should be returned to the park. And yet for 20 years now, the people of Basin and the surrounding areas—aided by a powerful lobby of farmers, ranchers and hunters—have been able to keep the wolf at bay. This may be changing, thanks to the new report and to a Congressional bill presented by Rep. Wayne Owens of Utah, which would require the Park Service to reintroduce wolves. Owens believes the people opposing the plan are throwbacks, clinging to outdated attitudes. "When I grew up," says Owens, "you killed anything that moved. That's the way the West was."

It's just a matter of time, he believes, before Norm Bishop and his fellow rangers head up to Jasper National Park in Alberta and trap 15 pairs of gray wolves, radio-collar them and turn them loose in the 3,500-square-mile park. "We'll have wolves back in Yellowstone in two years," Bishop predicts. Once again the howl of the gray wolf may split the night in one of America's last great wilderness areas, as it did for 1,000 years.

William Plummer, Bill Shaw in Yellowstone

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