“On this day in 1995, trucks carrying wolves arrived at the North Entrance and marked the beginning of that species’ restoration in Yellowstone,” writes the national park in recognition of this momentous day in conservation history.
January 12, 1995 saw the first time wolves had been on Yellowstone National Park land in seven decades. Yet it would be another two months before the wolves would be released to roam free in the park.
“On March 21, 1995 they were released–making it possible to see a wild wolf in Yellowstone for the first time in nearly 70 years,” the park continues. Yellowstone rangers, biologists, and a whole slew of conservationists and government officials made this possible. And the transformation our first national park underwent after the return of the gray wolf was nothing short of astounding.
“When wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park, in really quite small numbers, they quickly transformed much of the ecology. And even, to an extent, the physical geography of the park,” explains renowned environmental author and activist George Monbiot for the BBC in a 2022 study.
In short: “This very small number of crucial predators altered the very nature of the land.”
Gray wolves, or the timber wolf, were once abundant from Canada to Mexico. But the arrival of European settlers nearly wiped out North America’s iconic gray wolves entirely. By the 20th century, all native populations of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem had been eradicated. This left the world’s first national park without wolves for a century. And the land responded.
Wolves’ ‘Landscape of Fear’ Brought Yellowstone National Park Far Closer to its Natural State
Without wolves, it took less than 100 years for the entire Yellowstone ecosystem to transform in seemingly unbelievable ways. Some of these changes were so extreme, in fact, that modern scientists could never have known about them until they were reversed by the reintroduction of gray wolves.
“The reason for this is what ecologists call the ‘Landscape of Fear,’” Monbiot emphasizes. “The deer they hunted began to vacate places where they could easily be caught… Like tight river valleys where they could be trapped. They then moved into other parts of the park where they could see the wolves coming more easily.”
Through their natural fear of these apex predators, Yellowstone herbivores (deer, elk, and even bison) left entire niche ecosystems. “The vegetation began to recover. The trees came back,” Monbiot cites. But this was only the beginning. The beginning of a deeply beneficial ‘Landscape of Fear.’
“When the trees came back, the songbirds came back. And the beavers came back because beavers eat trees. The beavers then transformed the rivers,” Mobiot smiles. “They created pools and riffle sections and a lot more habitats for wildlife than there were before – allowing ducks to come back. And otters, and fish, and newts and many other species.”
For more from Mobiot, be sure to see our original coverage of Yellowstone National Park’s ‘Landscape of Fear.’