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Fighting Outlaws, Returning Wolves

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Karen Jones examines the significance of the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park.

In January 1995, a motorcade escorting fourteen caged wolves passed under the Roosevelt Arch, the imposing gateway to Yellowstone National Park, northern Wyoming, in the United States of America. Flag-waving children, camera-wielding press, and emotional onlookers lined the road as if welcoming a president or returning military hero. After an absence of nearly seventy years, wolves returned to Yellowstone amidst a flurry of popular activity. However, the scheme to return canine denizens to the American Rockies had proved intensely controversial. Radical environmental groups protested that there were insufficient protective measures for the returning wolves, whilst ranching lobbies filed legal injunctions against the project. For several years, a court case threatened the removal of Yellowstone’s newly restored packs. A secure future for park wolves was guaranteed only in January 2000, when the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favour of the reintroduction. Over 150 wolves, from eight packs, now roam Yellowstone’s forests and river valleys, attesting to a radical reversal of fortune for the maligned predator.

The fierce passions aroused by the Yellowstone reintroduction scheme reveal the wolf as a contentious animal in human history. Across several continents, the species Canis lupus has endured unremitting persecution. In early European pastoral society, people celebrated the domestic dog as a worthy ally, whilst deriding his wild ancestor, the wolf, as an indomitable enemy. In Medieval Europe, wolves acquired a pungent reputation for trickery and ferocity. Folk tales conjured up images of devilish four-legged beasts, incorrigible ravagers lurking in the forest eager to devour lost travellers, debased creatures with probing yellow eyes and blood-soaked fangs. Aesop’s fables portrayed canines as creatures of deceit, whilst Dante’s Renaissance text, Inferno, cast the she-wolf as an arch-symbol of greed. Imaginary wolves continued to stalk the pages of literature and legend for some time after their real-life counterparts had been eliminated from England’s rural realm by the sixteenth century.

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