Forget the image of the frothing, child-stalking, grandmother-eating predator of fairy tale lore. Wolves have become man’s best friend in Yellowstone National Park, which has become the best place in the world to spot the endangered creature. The controversial reintroduction of canis lupus in Yellowstone and central Idaho in 1996 has been a boon, especially for the park, where tourists have come from all over the world for the unique opportunity to see wolves in the wild. The return of wolves has created a side benefit: An ailing Lamar River valley ecosystem has quickly been restored, thanks to a concept called “trophic cascade.”
With the return of the area’s top predator, elk – the wolf’s favorite cuisine – no longer browse lazily on cottonwood, willow and aspen trees. The return of those trees after an 80-year absence has created new habitat along the Lamar for beaver, trout and songbirds. The regrowth of berry bushes also could mean a new lease on life for the endangered grizzly bear, whose future is clouded by pinebark beetle decimation of the whitebark spruce in higher elevations; the bear relies heavily on cones for winter hibernation sustenance.
Most remarkable about what some naturalists call the greatest ecological experiment of the past century is that visitors can witness wolves in the wild fairly easily. One park researcher, Rick McIntyre, has seen one nearly every day. To find wolves, enter the park at any of the five entrance stations – they all opened the weekend of April 22-23 – get a map from a ranger and head for the Lamar Valley, in the northeast corner of the park.
Best viewing places: Slough Creek, the Yellowstone Institute and Round Prairie. Look for stopped traffic. Though the onset of summer means tourists will stop for animals as common as bison and elk, frequently a large jam means wolves or bears.
Regulars know the surefire way to see wolves: Look for McIntyre, who drives a conspicuous yellow Nissan Xterra. Wherever the Xterra goes, wolves are sure to follow – or at least be in the vicinity. McIntyre also happily explains what wolves are doing, their history, and even gives visitors without a spotting scope a look through his.