Jogging along a winding dirt road on Jackson’s outskirts, Renee Askins sometimes lets out a few howls to rouse the coyotes that roam the foothills of the Teton Mountains.
“I’m a real good coyote howler,” the 33-year-old former Michigan resident said. “The coyotes answer me all the time.”
What she longs most to hear, though, is the mournful reply of a gray wolf. The predator hasn’t made the Greater Yellowstone area home since the late 1920s when an aggressive federal government campaign succeeded in exterminating the animal in the West.
The 1973 federal Endangered Species Act sought to reverse that. But in 1986, with no wolves in sight, Askins created the Wolf Fund, a nonprofit lobbying enterprise.
The fund is devoted solely to seeing wolves returned to the Yellowstone ecosystem, which includes Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks and surrounding national forests in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. The fund also publishes a newsletter and has a mailing list of about 7,000 names, though there is no formal membership. Support comes from private donors and foundations.
Askins’ efforts have raised more than money. Her cause has attracted people like Joseph Marshall. A member of the Sioux Indian tribe in South Dakota, he sometimes joins Askins in public speaking engagements to talk about the wolf from the American Indian perspective.
Askins also enlisted support for the wolf from people such as Robert Redford, who narrates a public service announcement for the fund. The actor-director’s involvement encouraged Cable News Network owner Ted Turner, who has a ranch in Montana, to broadcast the ad.
The Wolf Fund’s advisory board reads like a Who’s Who of conservationists. Members include writer Peter Matthiessen, wolf biologist David Mech, and geologist David Love, the subject of John McPhee’s book “Rising From the Plains.”
Askins said she has focused on restoring the wolf to what she considers its rightful place because the goal is achievable. “We need these things that heal us,” she said.
The ecological arguments for returning the wolf to Yellowstone is compelling enough, she said. “It (Yellowstone) does have every original plant and animal species--except the wolf.”
Although the wolf’s numbers are growing in Canada and Alaska, their populations are small in the lower 48 states, chiefly in northwestern Montana and Minnesota. Packs have also been seen in Idaho.
The 1973 federal Endangered Species Act requires the government to rebuild the wolf population.
It hasn’t yet, and Askins and others in the pro-wolf cause blame politics. The sound of a wolf’s howl would hardly delight many ranchers and hunters in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.
“If the wolf comes, it is just one more straw that will hurt this state--I’m talking economically,” said Carolyn Paseneaux, director of the Wyoming Wool Growers Assn.
While insisting that most ranchers aren’t anti-wolf, Paseneaux said they fear wolves would leave the park and kill cattle and sheep. The predators’ return also could spell disaster for the hunting industries, she said. “We certainly don’t want the wolf to become the spotted owl of Wyoming.”
The National Park Service recently released a report--"Wolves for Yellowstone?"--that said about 1,600 wolves in Minnesota killed four adult cattle and 23 calves annually between 1979 and 1991--or 1.2 per 100 cattle. The number of sheep killed during the same period was 50, or 23.7 per 100 sheep.
The same report predicted that the Yellowstone area elk population could drop by 20% in the next 100 years with the wolf’s return.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is preparing an environmental impact statement on returning wolves to the country’s premier national park and to central Idaho. Last year Congress appropriated $400,000 for the task, which included public hearings.
Ed Bangs, project leader for the Gray Wolf Environmental Impact Statement, said opponents in Congress have delayed funding for the study, which is mandatory before wolves can be reintroduced at Yellowstone.
“I think there has been some politics,” Bangs said in a recent interview. “But on the flip side there has been a steady stream of management actions, reports and action to look at this wolf thing in detail.”
Although the recent flurry of federal activity might indicate progress, Askins worries that some people may assume the wolf’s return to Yellowstone is certain.
“It’s a great step forward and does signify the last legal hurdle,” she said. “But I think it’s real important for the public to understand that their input is critical.”
Asked how she will feel when she lets loose a howl in Yellowstone--a place she fell in love with at first sight--and a wolf answers, the normally articulate, lively Askins grew pensive.
“I’ll feel like this place I love is right and whole,” she said after a long pause. “What could be a greater gift than a place like that?”