Six decades after their ancestors were vanquished by government-backed poisoning campaigns, gray wolves corralled in Canada were returned to Yellowstone on Thursday in a historic attempt to restore the balance of nature in the nation's oldest national park.
But their living quarters--at least for the next several weeks--will be heavily guarded fenced enclosures where they can become accustomed to their new surroundings while dining on road-killed elk.
Hundreds of wolf fans, government officials and reporters gathered at Yellowstone's headquarters to mark the arrival of eight animals that federal biologists hope will form a vibrant breeding pack for a top predator that ideally could be taken off the endangered species list within five years.
Of the species of wildlife that were in Yellowstone when it was established in 1872, only Canis lupus is missing.
"We are within inches of putting together a vignette that is complete in every detail, with every large species of primitive America," said Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, who helped carry a crate containing a 98-pound female wolf off a mule-drawn sled and into one of the fenced enclosures. "At last the wolves are coming home, and Yellowstone will be a complete ecosystem."
The wolf, like the seven others transplanted here Thursday, sat quietly inside a cramped 2- by 3- by 4-foot metal travel kennel. And for a while, it seemed as if the wolves would remain in the cages pending a federal appeals court decision on a request to stop the reintroduction effort, which ranchers fear threatens sheep and cattle.
Amid urgent pleas by wolf advocates nationwide to "free the Yellowstone 8," the appeals court in Denver late Thursday agreed to release them into the larger enclosures.
The ruling came in the nick of time.
Michael Phillips, a Yellowstone Park wildlife biologist, expressed grave concerns about the creatures' health.
"They're not doing well," he said earlier in the day. "We never intended to maintain them in shipping crates for such a long period of time."
The relocation effort follows two decades of passionate debate and a flurry of last-minute legal maneuvers by ranchers to stop the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's $7-million plan to transplant a maximum 15 Canadian wolves here and 15 into the wilderness of central Idaho near the River of No Return.
A week ago, U.S. District Judge William Downes in Cheyenne, Wyo., denied a request by the American Farm Bureau and Mountain States Legal Foundation for an injunction to halt the reintroduction on grounds that livestock producers would suffer "immediate, irreparable injury" at both release sites.
The opponents took their case to the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, which Wednesday issued a temporary stay blocking the release of four Canadian wolves in Idaho and those in Yellowstone from their shipping crates for at least 48 hours.
But Steve Lechner, an attorney representing the Mountain States Legal Foundation, said any harm that comes to the wolves must be blamed on federal officials.
"They knew we'd be appealing the decision, yet they moved as fast as they've ever moved in the history of the federal bureaucracy," Lechner said. "They shoved the wolves into crates and shipped them down."
Confident that the court eventually would approve their plans, federal biologists a week ago moved ahead in blustery winter weather with helicopters and tranquilizer dart guns to capture, radio-collar and transport the first batch of 12 Canadian wolves from the rolling hills north of Hinton, Alberta, to places where their howl has not been heard since the 1930s.
One wolf, an adult female, was killed during capture last week when an aerial tranquilizer dart passed through her side and punctured her lungs. Some of the wolves were captured by Canadian trappers who snared them with loops of metal cable attached to a locking device designed to prevent choking.
Other wolf reintroduction attempts are in the works. Two years ago, the red wolf was reintroduced into the Appalachian highlands. Mexican wolves are being raised for reintroduction into the Southwest.
But the effort here, which is based on years of consultation with scientists, 150 public meetings and 160,000 public comments, promises to be even more successful because of the abundance of game and Yellowstone's fabled status as a remnant of America's wild frontier.
Unlike the wolves destined for Idaho, which are to be released immediately, the Yellowstone-bound animals will spend six to eight weeks in one-acre chain-link pens in scenic Lamar Valley to get used to surroundings teeming with herds of natural prey such as elk, deer and bison.
While temporarily housed in the pens, each of which is surrounded by an electrified wire to ward off other large creatures, the naturally wary wolves will experience minimal human contact beyond weekly visits by rangers hauling in road-killed elk for them to eat.
Just out of view in the cover of nearby trees, however, will be armed rangers on 24-hour assignment to protect the predators that have been demonized and venerated in Western and Native American lore.
Before the organized wolf extermination campaigns of the 19th and 20th Centuries, wolves thrived in nearly every region of North America north of Mexico City.
By the 1930s, the wolf populations had been vanquished in old lairs including Yellowstone, their disappearance hastened by aggressive hunting since the West was settled by Europeans and national programs to eradicate predators on public lands.
Their absence disrupted the natural balance of predator and prey throughout the Rocky Mountain region and resulted in a population explosion of such species as elk and deer, which are expected to make up about 70% of the reintroduced wolves' diet in Yellowstone.
Once numbering in the millions, only about 2,000 wolves are left in the lower 48 states and about 7,000 in Alaska, according to game officials.
A small number of the resilient, mobile and efficient hunters are beginning to wander into the northern Rockies on their own, raising concerns among ranchers who regard them as marauding killing machines. Environmentalists argue that they are intelligent and clannish beasts that filled an important niche in their range before it was parceled up with fences.
Because expanding wolf populations are expected to test the fortitude of even sympathetic ranchers, federal officials have agreed to let livestock producers kill relocated wolves in the act of attacking livestock.
Beyond that, the Defenders of Wildlife--an environmental group involved in the relocation effort--has established a $100,000 Wolf Compensation Fund to pay fair market value to every rancher verified to have lost livestock in wolf attacks.
Since the fund was created in 1987, Defenders of Wildlife has paid about $17,000 to more than 20 livestock producers in northwest Montana and southern Alberta, said Bob Ferris, a spokesman for the group.
"The amount of money the Farm Bureau has spent in taking the case to court likely will exceed the value of livestock lost to wolves for many years," Ferris said. "We hope that time and our compensation fund will allay the fears of those who oppose reintroduction.
"The important thing is that most Americans want to bring wolves home," he added. "Now, after years of effort, the wolves are finally on their way."
Times staff writer Sahagun reported from Montana and Times correspondent Milstein from Yellowstone. Times researcher Ann Rovin in Denver also contributed to this story.