by David McKay Wilson
It’s been seventeen years since Smith helped launch the effort to restore wolves to the 2 million-acre park. Today, an estimated ninety-eight wolves in ten packs thrive in Yellowstone. On this crisp February morning, the lanky Smith, dressed in his green wool Park Service uniform with a pair of Nikon binoculars dangling from his neck, talks about how wolves have reacted to the decline in the park’s elk herd, their prime prey.
“The wolves and elk are coming into equilibrium as the park’s getting restored to its natural condition,” says Smith, 51, project leader of the Yellowstone Gray Wolf Restoration Project. “Initially, we had an overpopulation of elk and a surplus of food for the wolves. We now have a leaner, meaner elk herd, and the wolves are having a harder time of it.”
Wolves were eradicated from the park, and much of the West, in the early twentieth century. The restoration of wolves to Yellowstone is viewed by wildlife experts as one of America’s greatest successes in wildlife management, with the gray wolf off the endangered species list and the Yellowstone ecosystem more like it was before Europeans settled the continent five centuries ago.
Smith’s success, however, has run up against virulent anti-wolf sentiment throughout the . . .