BOULDER, Colo., Feb. 23 (UPI) -- Ever since he ate up Red Riding Hood's grandma and blew down the houses of two-thirds of the Three Little Pigs, the Big Bad Wolf has held a persistently bad reputation.
In part because of that reputation, the gray wolf was nearly exterminated from the lower 48 states by the 1920s, except for a small remnant population on Isle Royale National Park in Michigan's Lake Superior. The last wolf was killed in Yellowstone National Park in 1943.
Western sheep and cattle ranchers, on whose behalf this extermination campaign was conducted, gratefully dusted their hands of the wolf and wrote him off as a job well done. Their sheep could graze, their cows could ruminate and never a discouraging word would be heard.
After the major kill-offs, wolves outside of Alaska and Canada existed mostly as legend. Like UFOs or Sasquatch, several people claimed to see fleeting lone wolves, usually in Yellowstone.
In the 1960s, a group shooting a movie in the Wyoming park reportedly imported some captive wolves, then released them when their shooting was done. If so, this happy band has not been heard from since.
Rumor also had it some renegade biologist brought a caged pair to Yellowstone and released them into the wild sometime in the 1970s, hoping to reestablish a breeding population. If true, the caper failed.
Over time, the wolf's absence seemed to rehabilitate its image. Eventually, a trickle of support appeared for bringing the predator back to its former home range in the northern Rocky Mountains. This trickle grew into a flood, resulting in 14 wolves being reintroduced in Yellowstone in 1995 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service -- albeit over the strong and still-continuing objections of ranchers. These wolf packs have flourished, and now there are an estimated 850 wolves roaming the northern Rockies, where merely 10 years ago there were none.
One compelling argument for reintroduction was the wolf acts as a keystone predator, an animal that affects the populations, behavior and ecology of a wide variety of species within its range. Some recent research conducted by Oregon State University has given considerable credence to this idea.
OSU forestry professors William Ripple and Robert Beschta have found that wolves actually promote stream-bank stabilization, although they have given the phenomenon the unfortunate name of "the ecology of fear" -- something that smacks of the horrible PR resulting from the wolf's relationships with Riding Hood and the Three Pigs.
They explained that elk in Yellowstone used to browse unmolested on young aspen and willow growing near the banks of streams, a behavior that prevented the saplings from reaching mature stages and increased the possibility of soil erosion. Since reintroduction, however, Ripple and Beschta have found, fear of the wolves apparently has discouraged the elk from spending too much time at stream banks -- where they are out in the open -- and munching on the saplings.
"All you have to do is look at the photographs," Ed Bangs, wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told UPI's Blue Planet, "You say, 'wow!' An area that used to be bald as a billiard ball is now a sea of willow."
This simple change has triggered a veritable ecological cascade in Yellowstone. More streamside willow and aspen have meant better habitat for beaver, for instance. Where there had been only one beaver colony in the park's northern range before the wolves returned, now there are nine.
"It may be uninteresting to a lot of people," Beschta told Blue Planet. "There's a lot of impact on plants and they say, 'Who cares?' But we've been looking at streamside communities. Since wolf recovery, streamside plants, willows and cottonwoods provide food for other critters -- beavers, a whole variety of avian species, berry-producing shrubs that bears can use. It's important with regard to the quality of streams. The plants provide shade and root strength for bank stability. Plants are critical to wildland ecosystems."
Yellowstone has a vast elk herd, one of the largest in the world. Bangs said although the number of elk has not declined very much since the wolves came back, their behavior appears markedly different.
"I'm pretty suspicious of making broad generalizations," however, he cautioned. "Wolves are still pretty new. They've only been there for 10 years. In 10 more years we'll have a better idea."
Wolf reintroduction in the northern Rockies has been so successful the Fish and Wildlife Service has moved to reduce the animal's status from endangered to threatened and, eventually, to remove it from the endangered species list altogether. Bangs said the agency has established viable wolf packs in the northern Rockies, as required by federal regulations.
Some conservationists want the protection extended so wolves can move into other states, including Colorado, Utah and Oregon, among others. On Jan. 31, Oregon Federal District Court Judge Robert E. Jones appeared to agree with them. He vacated the FWS decision to downgrade the wolf's status. Bangs said his agency is still reviewing the decision.
Regardless of the wolf's legal status, its future expansion into new areas now seems likely. Wolves can migrate considerable distances. A Yellowstone wolf was found dead, hit by a car, on a Colorado highway last year, several hundred miles from home.
Meanwhile, his reputation seems to be improving, although Bangs noted a "pretty interesting social dynamic."
There are only about 850 wolves in the West, but there are an estimated 31,000 mountain lions. Pound for pound, mountain lions eat more game and more livestock than wolves. They even occasionally attack people, which wolves do not -- despite the propaganda from the Brothers Grimm.
Yet people seem willing -- even eager -- to accommodate mountain lions, despite the risks. It remains to be seen whether they will extend the same courtesy to the arriving gray wolf.
Regarding those rumors about wolves living in Yellowstone prior to the official reintroduction? They seem to be just that: rumors.
True, there are about 300,000 wolves and wolf hybrids kept as pets in the United States. It also is likely people have released some of these animals into the wild hoping they would survive -- for instance, a ranger in Glacier Park caught someone in this very act not long ago.
Bangs said these animals are not equipped to survive in the wild, however, and they all almost certainly have died. He said after 10 years of DNA testing on northern Rockies wolves, scientists have not found a single strain that did not belong to one of the wolves the agency released -- or their descendants.
Blue Planet is a weekly series examining the relationship of humans to the environment, by veteran environmental reporter Dan Whipple. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org