Frank Clifford on “Howling Success”

Wolves in the northern Rockies
After coming within 50 feet of several wolves, Frank Clifford understands why 100,000 people say they come to Yellowstone just to see wolves. Jess R. Lee

Frank Clifford was a reporter and editor for the Los Angeles Times from 1982 until 2007, covering government and politics, including two presidential campaigns, before focusing on environmental issues. As the paper's editor for environmental news from 2001 to 2007 he was in charge of a series of articles on the impacts of worldwide ocean pollution, for which his paper won a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory journalism in 2007. He is the author of one book, The Backbone of the World: A Portrait of the Vanishing West Along the Continental Divide (2002/Broadway Books). Clifford currently works as a freelance writer based in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

What drew you to write about the wolves?

Smithsonian offered me the assignment two months after wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains had been removed from Endangered Species Act protection. During that time more than 40 wolves that ranged outside of Yellowstone Park had been killed. Their future clearly hinged on people's willingness to leave them alone if they weren't doing any harm. Extinct in the region since the 1930s, wolves were reintroduced to the park in 1995. The economy and the ecology of the area both benefitted as the new wolves attracted more visitors to the area and reduced the size of huge elk herds that had been crowding out native plants and animals. But as the park's wolf population grew, many of the animals left the park and some of them preyed on livestock. This story explores a question raised by that reintroduction. We brought back wolves partly out of nostalgia for the wildness of a long gone frontier. Now that wolves are back among us, how much wildness are we willing to tolerate?

What surprised you the most while covering this story?

The debate over wolf protection has been passionate at times, but the attitudes toward wolves by people who live closest to them are not always cut and dried. The hostility traditionally expressed by western livestock associations and local elected officials doesn't reflect the views of many residents, including some ranchers, who search for ways to coexist with wild predators, including wolves and grizzly bears.

Did you have any favorite moments that didn’t make it to the final draft?

At the end of a long day wandering around the park, looking for wolves and not finding any, I'd returned to my car and started driving toward the exit when I found myself staring at several members of a wolf pack arrayed across the road, 50 feet in front of me, like a welcoming committee. Nine in all, there were pups and grown-ups, some howling, some playing, others just sitting on their haunches watching me approach. It was clear to me in an instant why nearly 100,000 people say they come to Yellowstone each year just to see wolves.

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