It’s dawn and freezing in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley, the best place in the world to see wolves in the wild. Snow blankets the hills all around, steam rises from the frozen tundra and, in the distance, I hear the high-pitched cackle of coyotes closing in on a kill. “When you look a wolf in the eyes,” Doug Smith, the park’s lead conservationist, tells me, “it starts a fire in you.” Then I see them: a pack running on the horizon; black shadows silhouetted against the white plains of winter. Suddenly, a howl reverberates through the valley and the hairs on the back of my neck bristle.
This is why I’m here. Yellowstone National Park is a land of wonders: the spectacular travertine sculptures of Mammoth Hot Springs, the largest geyser basin on Earth, and the clockwork eruptions of Old Faithful herself. But its greatest wonder, perhaps, is what’s happening to the land as a whole, and that story begins and ends with the wolf.
There’s a lot of baggage: the mythology, the fear. Wolves used to run free across the entire North American continent, but by the early 1900s they were nearly extinct, thanks to hunters and predator control programmes. In Yellowstone, the last wolf was killed in 1926. It was to prove disastrous. Without a natural predator, the elk ate everything, decimating vegetation across the park and transforming it, in many places, into a barren wasteland. It had been assumed that human hunters would step in and take the place of the wolves, culling the herds to manageable numbers. But despite their best efforts, the problem intensified. Yellowstone was dying.
Then Doug had a brainwave. Between 1995 and 1997, he led a programme to relocate 41 wolves from Canada to Yellowstone. The effect was immediate. They killed some elk, of course, but more importantly they changed the elks’ behaviour. They stopped grazing in places where they knew they’d be vulnerable, like the valleys and gorges. As a result, those places began to regenerate. Forests of aspen, willow and cottonwood shot up, songbirds returned, beavers used the new trees to build dams, creating habitats for otters, fish and reptiles and helping to restore rivers and floodplains. The numbers of small mammals also increased, bringing more hawks, eagles and foxes into the park. In a few short years, a handful of wolves achieved what an army of men with rifles couldn’t. “Everything is connected to everything else,” Doug says. “When you take that top layer out of the food chain, it ripples across the entire ecosystem.”
The ongoing wolf experiment has changed the way the world thinks about wilderness conservation. The prevailing view, until the wolves arrived in Yellowstone, was that landscapes need to be preserved. Protect this marsh, restore this woodland, return this meadow to some previous idyllic state. But nature doesn’t work like that. Nature is dynamic; it ebbs and flows. Conservation, the wolves are teaching us, shouldn’t be about maintaining things; it should be about letting go. Tear down the fences, replace what you’ve stolen, then walk away. Nature will do the rest.
But the wolves are teaching us something about ourselves too. Later that day, I went snowshoeing on my own through the park. Dusk was falling, and I was still a couple of miles from home, when I came across a 2,000lb bull bison blocking my path.
Usually docile, but potentially deadly too — like a combat-ready cow. I shouted, banged things, talked nicely, even pleaded vegetarianism (why Yellowstone serves bison burgers after a bison safari I’ll never know), but he refused to leave.
Then, suddenly, without warning, he started walking towards me, nostrils flaring, dark eyes locking me in his stare. There was nowhere to run and no way around. People die every year by underestimating these bovine tanks; a 12-year-old boy was impaled a few weeks before I arrived. It was, I realised in horror, the first time I’ve ever been truly at the mercy of a creature bigger and angrier than me. It was terrifying, but thrilling too.
We’ve evolved to fight sabre-toothed tigers; but our lives are spent grappling social media feeds. We need to rewild our parks, because we need to rewild ourselves. Modern life may have dampened the fire, but the spark is still easy to find. Just look into the eyes of a wolf.
Published in the March 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)