Reporter: Allison Langdon
Producer: Nick Greenaway
You would think we'd all be celebrating. After all, it is one of the most successful reintroductions of a native species ever attempted.
But we're not talking cuddly bundles of fluff here.
The animal that has found its way home is the grey wolf.
For the first time in 80-odd years, wolves are once again roaming the wilds of North America.
When you get close to these creatures— and we mean really close - you get a fair idea of just how powerful they are.
They are predators. It's little wonder not everyone is glad to see them back.
PHOTOS: Allison Langdon with the wolves of Yellowstone National Park
ALLISON LANGDON: Yellowstone, the world’s first and most famous national park. There’s more hot springs here than anywhere else on the planet, and more wild animals than anywhere else in America. But for most of last century, one creature, one sound, was missing from its natural symphony - not any more.
DOUG SMITH: When you hear that deep guttural howl of a wolf come up out of a dark night there’s something about that, it’s just true nature, true wildness, and that’s what makes wolves special.
ALLISON LANGDON: But the wolves aren’t the only ones howling. There are plenty of people who reckon the only good wolf is a dead one.
RON: There are three kinds of terrorists. There are foreign terrorists like bin Laden; there are domestic terrorists like defenders of wildlife, earth justice and the wildlife terrorist is the Canadian wolf.
ALLISON LANGDON: So it’s a pretty hot issue?
DOUG SMITH: It’s very hot, not even red hot, it’s white hot.
ALLISON LANGDON: No scientist is more intimately involved with wolves in Yellowstone, than Doug Smith. After they were exterminated nearly a century ago, they were reintroduced from Canada in 1995.
DOUG SMITH: This is a very nice looking wolf. Real pleased to capture him.
ALLISON LANGDON: Doug has tracked and tagged, every wolf now calling the park home.
DOUG SMITH: His teeth are fairly beat up. He’s competing with other packs and he’s bringing down elk, bison and deer so his teeth show that.
ALLISON LANGDON: You think it was the right thing to do to bring the wolf back?
DOUG SMITH: I absolutely think this was the right thing to do, ethically, ecologically ah, completely wiping out another species I think is ethically wrong
ALLISON LANGDON: Has it been more successful than you thought it would be?
DOUG SMITH: Absolutely more successful than I thought it would be.
ALLISON LANGDON: Some would say too successful. Today there are nearly 100 wolves in the park, and close to 2000 throughout the Northern Rockies. In this part of the Wild West stretching through the states of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana they are the number one carnivore. Without them, the number of elk in the park exploded, and the ecosystem was out of whack. It may not be pretty to watch, but it’s the way things have always been.
MAN: Hey, Doug, we’ve got the Lamar Canyon wolves over by hitching post, looks like they’ve killed a big horn sheep overnight, you guys should get here as quick as you can.
DOUG SMITH: OK. Copy that. We will be headed your way, talk to you in a bit.
ALLISON LANGDON: What have they got?
DOUG SMITH: Well, sounds like they’ve got a kill…they’ve found this morning, its rare.
ALLISON LANGDON: So this is all part of the fun of field work?
DOUG SMITH: It is. If you love this kind of stuff you become a biologist.
ALLISON LANGDON: I’m not quite convinced just yet. Eventually we made it through the snow, past the wolf tracks, and over to the kill scene. Wow, they didn’t leave much did they?
DOUG SMITH: This is fairly typical. I mean they’re going to clean it up like this
ALLISON LANGDON: It’s a nasty way to go, isn’t it?
DOUG SMITH: Well, you know, I don’t know what to say to that. This is hard to say but this is nature’s way. This is how life and death in nature occurs. I really want you folks to see this ‘cause this is more how it is than it’s not.
ALLISON LANGDON: For scientists like Doug Smith returning the wolf to Yellowstone was putting the wild back into the wilderness. It had to happen for this place to be complete. But there are now more wolves outside of the park than there are in it. So it’s gone from being the world’s most successful reintroduction program to the most controversial. And once again, war has been declared on the wolf.
ALLISON LANGDON: What if you had a wolf here on your property?
RON: I’d kill it immediately. No questions asked and I’m not calling anybody.
ALLISON LANGDON: But doesn’t bother you that you could spend a year in jail if you did that?
RON: I’m not going to jail for a year for killing a wolf. If they prosecuted to the full extent of the law it could have been $100 000 fine and a year in jail. OJ Simpson wouldn’t have got that. That’s what these wolf lovers have done. An American legend”
ALLISON LANGDON: Nothing has Ron Gillette reaching for his Colt single action faster than a wolf. Could you kill a wolf with that thing?
RON: Absolutely. I’d love to. You bet.
ALLISON LANGDON: Love to try?
RON: I’d get him. I’d get him.
ALLISON LANGDON: As far as Ron is concerned the wolf is the number one threat to a cherished way of life. He claims the grey wolf, is an old enemy once again terrorising game herds and livestock.
RON: My grandad herded sheep here in this basin. My feet are 25 feet in the ground. I love this place. It’s one of the crown jewels of the American west, but the way this wolf devastation is taking place without our big game herds and our animals, this’ll be a desert. The Canadian wolf is the most cruel, vicious predator in North America
JUSTIN: It’s just gotten completely out of hand and if there’s no end to it, then there’s not going to be very many people who are who will survive something like that.
ALLISON LANGDON: So you think a rancher like yourself could go out of business?
JUSTIN: Sure. Yeah, yeah.
ALLISON LANGDON: So this is the original homestead?
JUSTIN: Yeah, yeah. They built this when they first came here from Missouri and ah…
ALLISON LANGDON: When was that?
JUSTIN: That was about 1878.
ALLISON LANGDON: Justin O’Hair is a 5th generation Montana Rancher, and claims the wolf is making him and plenty of others, an endangered species. On average, he loses 8-10 cattle a year.
JUSTIN: So a lot of times you’ll find where an animal’s been killed that you won’t find any bones, you won’t find any hide, you won’t find hair. All you’ll see is a little bunch of grass there that was what was left in its stomach.
ALLISON LANGDON: So the wolf eats everything else of the animal?
JUSTIN: Everything. Everything. Sometimes you’ll find the ear tag of the cow and that’s about it.
RON: They would have to be trapped. They’ll have to be poisoned. There will have to be a season on them 365 days a year.
ALLISON LANGDON: It’s a war.
RON: It could turn into a civil war and I’ll tell you, we are not just standing around getting red-faced, making threats to people.
ALLISON LANGDON: If it’s going to be a war, Nancy Taylor will be the first one into the trenches fighting for the wolf.
NANCY: I would take a bullet for one of my wolves. If there was somebody threatening my wolf with a gun, I would walk in front of that person, between them and my wolf. And they would have to shoot me first.
ALLISON LANGDON: I think you actually mean that.
NANCY: I do mean. I don’t say things I don’t mean. I do mean it. I would actually make them shoot me first.
ALLISON LANGDON: So if you call them, will they come?
NANCY: Um, not always. Oh, it looks like Coco’s going to come for a visit.
ALLISON LANGDON: This is Coco?
NANCY: Hi, Coco.
ALLISON LANGDON: How do how do you pat a wolf?
NANCY: You put just put the back of your hand up…
ALLISON LANGDON: I never thought I’d ask that question.
NANCY: And let - she’s going to check you out.
ALLISON LANGDON: You’re right.
NANCY: And she may give you kisses
ALLISON LANGDON: Nancy is a wolf breeder, and puts her mouth where her heart is - passionately defending the right of wolves to exist not just in Yellowstone, but throughout the US.
NANCY: Actually, we moved in on the wolf. The wolf did not move in on us. So things changed for the wolf. You know, all of a sudden we come in, we want to compete with the wolf and a lot of times what the hunters are mad about is um, I have to laugh when I say this but it’s true, the wolf is the better hunter in most cases and man does not like that.
ALLISON LANGDON: Oops, I’m remaining relaxed. Nancy says wolves are not the vicious killer they’re so often portrayed to be. But when you’re this close any sudden movement gets your heart racing. Ooh that was a bite.
NANCY: No. You don’t take the fur. You don’t take the fur. But there you go. Okay, let’s use that that incident right there. Okay, he wanted that. You’re a stranger and if he would have been you know a real aggressive killer he would have had that and he’d a had you too.
ALLISON LANGDON: We’ve just spotted one of the wolf packs here in Yellowstone, its 7 o’clock in the morning we can see three adults and four pups, they’ve been together for about a year its known as the Lamar pack and you can just make them out, up there on the rise.
RICK: We get to see them every day and for many of these wolves we see them their whole lives.
ALLISON LANGDON: A winter’s morning in Yellowstone is the best time to see wolves; and wolf watching has become big business. No one is better at spotting them than Rick McIntyre. Here the wolves are known by numbers not names so the Alpha female of this pack is known as 06.
RICK: Her mother by the way was very, very popular with the male wolves. And ah, the 06…
ALLISON LANGDON: So’s this one by the looks of things…
RICK: Yeah. She’s been through a lot of boyfriends. Um, one mating season she set a record. She bred with five different males and ah…
ALLISON LANGDON: So she’s just a tart.
RICK: Well, she’s been around the block a few times
ALLISON LANGDON: And it’s the sheer ability of wolves to go around the block that’s taken everyone by surprise. There are at least four times the number of wolves than originally anticipated, which has fuelled calls for culling. It’s inevitable the shooting will start, the question is when, and how many. For men like Ron Gillette the answer is simple. All of them.
RON: Another fallacy - the wolf lovers tell you only the alpha male and female have pups. They all breed They’re out of control like the rabbits in Australia!
DOUG: It’s all based on how you view nature. If you view nature as something to make your living from your probably against wolves. If you view nature as something we should live in harmony with you’re probably in favour of wolves and those two mindsets are colliding on this wolf issue. I feel sorry for the wolf.
ALLISON LANGDON: So you either love the wolf or you hate the wolf.
DOUG: That’s exactly correct.