Whatever the reasons, humans are at war with wolves. It is an ancient dispute over territory and food between their clans and ours, and its battleground spreads across the northern Rocky Mountain states and right up to the door of my remote cabin near Montana's Glacier National Park. A young female named Diane marked the place by peeing on the front-porch mat.
There is a den not too far away atop a timbered knoll sheltered by overhanging boughs. Dug between tree roots, the opening gapes like a maw and extends underground for 18 feet—a manor by wolf standards. The ground around it is worn bare by generations of pawed feet. Paths lead to an open hillside overlooking a mile-long meadow fringed by autumn-colored aspen and willow, hushed except for the occasional call of a raven. The snowy peaks of the Continental Divide rise in the distance, and a wild river flows close by. Wolf tracks intersect with the prints of elk, deer, moose, and grizzly bears. Though the pups reared here are running with the adults now, the pack isn't far away, according to the radio signals of the alpha female.
Many had thought the war was over. Relentlessly shot, trapped, and poisoned, even in nature reserves, gray wolves were gone from the West by the 1930s. In 1974, when Canis lupus was declared endangered in the lower 48 states, the gray wolf population was confined to a corner of northern Minnesota and Michigan's Isle Royale National Park out in Lake Superior.
Then, during the mid-1980s, a handful trotted down the Continental Divide from Canada. Two settled in the hidden meadow in Glacier and in 1986 reared five pups. Footsore biologists trying to keep track of the newcomers dubbed them the Magic pack for the way they seemed to vanish and reappear like wisps of ground fog.
The pack grew and soon split into two, then three, keeping mostly within the park. Some animals broke away and dispersed to neighboring national forests. Then all at once, a pair was denning on private ranchland 90 miles southwest of Glacier and less than 30 miles from the Idaho border. People began to report wolves in both Idaho and northern Wyoming. Still, there was no proof those wolves were anything but passing wanderers. Not yet.
In 1995 and 1996, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service captured wolves in Canada and released them into 2.2-million-acre Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho's wilderness areas. The unprecedented federal action triggered such an eruption of hope, fear, resentment, lawsuits, and headline news that most people assume the whole return of the wolf to the West began that way. It didn't, but those reintroductions worked like a rocket booster. Populations grew, and the war escalated.