Dances with wolves

In the northern reaches of Yellowstone National Park, Julie Miller tracks down a celebrity of the animal kingdom.

There's a traffic jam on the Slough Creek turnoff and reinforcements have been called to monitor the parking debacle. On a nearby hillside, the crowd is swelling, buzzing with excitement and anxious to catch a glimpse of the action. Any evidence of blurred motion elicits gasps of awe.

''Oh my god, I can see him,'' a teenage girl whispers breathlessly. ''Oh, it's amazing - he's so beautiful.'' She pulls back from the spotting scope she's been using, clapping her hands with glee. ''I'm so excited,'' she gushes to her watching parents. ''I can't believe I've seen a wolf. We can go home now.''

Of all the creatures in the pantheon of Wyoming's Yellowstone National Park, none is more charismatic and fascinating than the wolf. These are the rock stars of the animal kingdom. Documented in books and on film, the minutia of their lives is recorded, each snack, sneeze and snooze a chapter in a natural soap opera.

There's a good reason for their fan club - they have been living in the Northern Rockies ecosystem for only 15 years, their reintroduction one of the boldest and most controversial biological experiments of all time.

The last of Yellowstone's grey wolves died at the hands of a national park employee in 1926, the victim of a systematic government program to eradicate the most feared and misunderstood creature in the American wilderness. It was once the most abundant predator in North America.

Seventy years later, the decision to reverse the environmental mistakes of the past seemed sheer madness to many, with everyone from hunters to ranchers and even politicians repeating the adage that the only good wolf is a dead one. After several court cases and a long wait, however, 31 wolves were relocated from British Columbia in Canada to the world's oldest national park, released in several stages in 1995-96.

By all accounts, the project was a resounding success. Some say too successful. Protected under the Endangered Species Act and with a smorgasbord of prey in Yellowstone's northern valleys to sustain them, the packs thrived and multiplied in their new home and dispersed beyond park boundaries into Idaho and Montana.

The apex predator was back, causing an inevitable shift of balance in the ecosystem. Elk numbers in particular plummeted - a fact not lost on the powerful hunting lobby.

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The reintroduction of what is known as a ''keystone species'' created an unprecedented opportunity for scientific study; the newcomers were fitted with radio collars so researchers could track every movement of an otherwise elusive breed.

With the scientists came volunteers and, following in their wake, curious tourists eager to catch a glimpse of the famous animals, as well as tour companies and guiding services.

Spotting wildlife in Yellowstone is surprisingly simple. While it pays to keep an eye on the treeline, the first rule is to watch for traffic jams. When traffic slows, it's for a reason: a meandering herd of bison - the undisputed king of the road - or the flash of a coyote disappearing into the verge. ''What is it?'' is the oft-heard phrase as cars cruise by, passengers poised with cameras in hand.

One damp spring morning we travel through the park's northern reaches with a private guide from Xanterra Parks and Resorts in Yellowstone and our spotting tally is impressive: countless bison, several velvet-antlered elk, lithe pronghorns and even a moose grazing his way through a boggy wetland.

We spot five black bears, some with cubs in tow that are cute as buttons as they bound after mamma; and we're struck silent by the sight of a massive male grizzly, who had been chased down a hillside and on to the road by an ornery coyote seconds before our arrival.

But it's the wolves we're here to see and our guide has a good idea where to find them. We're heading to Lamar Valley - often called the Serengeti of the US, with vast herds of bison and elk providing a moveable feast for top predators. Turning off at Slough Creek Road, we're rewarded by the sight of a packed car park - a sure sign of wolf action - with a bright-yellow truck, bristling with antennas and radio equipment, standing out like a beacon.

This vehicle belongs to Rick McIntyre, a man described as the ''Pied Piper of the wolf watchers''. A national park employee, McIntyre plays a vital role in the wolf research program, leading a team of volunteers who study the 14 packs of wolves residing in the park.

On any day, during winter and spring (the optimum wolf-watching seasons), McIntyre can be found in his khakis, perched on a stool and eye glued to a scope scanning the hillside, surrounded by wolf enthusiasts keen to tap his considerable knowledge. Binoculars in hand, we trudge up a ridge where the wolf watchers are positioned, spotting scopes focused on a hillside a kilometre or so away.

Generous with both equipment and information, McIntyre offers us a peek through his powerful Swarovski device. We missed an earlier drama, he says - a female wolf removing her pups from a den. McIntyre is waiting patiently for her to reappear from behind a rock and for her story to unfold.

Suddenly his radio buzzes: another pair of wolves has been sighted further down the valley, gorging on a fresh kill of elk. McIntyre decides to stay here to watch the female's unusual behaviour, while we follow several wolf watchers to the new site.

We're not disappointed. Partially hidden behind a bare aspen, the celebrity couple we spy in the distance is unaware of the fuss it has created. It's breakfast time and the large male with a lush silver pelt has no intention of sharing his kill with an opportunistic raven moving in for scraps. Through the scope, I watch enthralled as he tears at elk flesh with bloodstained teeth, stopping to snap at the bird.

It's a mesmerising sight and it's hard to pull away from the drama. But not everyone has fallen under the wolf's spell. For many people in the western states, the wolf is the devil incarnate. The problem, it appears, lies in its inability to respect park boundaries, with packs establishing themselves across state lines in Idaho and Montana and regions bordering ranch land. With about 1600 wolves now inhabiting the Northern Rockies, many fear the tipping point has been reached. Both states involved introduced a wolf-hunting season recently, enraging environmentalists, who believe the decision is premature.

It's an emotion-charged debate and one that is only just beginning as the state of Wyoming, too, considers changing its stance on wolf hunting. For the wolf enthusiasts of Yellowstone, it's a heartbreaking reversal. Several collared alpha males who have ventured beyond the park's boundaries have already been shot.

Some see wolf hunting as the natural order of things, man re-establishing himself at the top of the food chain. Others believe hunting is the key to sustainable management of wolf populations.

There is merit in both arguments but when it comes to wildlife management, there is no stronger authority than Mother Nature herself. After the initial surge of wolf numbers within the park, the population reached its threshold, triggering territorial conflicts, a decline in prey and a rise in disease.

From a peak of 174 animals in 2003, Yellowstone's wolf population has fallen to just below 100, which appears to be a sustainable figure for the territory.

Despite the controversy, it seems the wolf's future - in Yellowstone, at least - is secure. Nature's rock star is thriving, the ultimate touchstone of the wild.

Julie Miller travelled courtesy of Visit Montana, Wyoming Tourism, V Australia and www.zuji.com.au.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Bozeman, Billings, Jackson Hole and Idaho Falls are the nearest airports to Yellowstone National Park; the choice depends on which part of the park you'd like to see. V Australia has a fare to Bozeman, Montana, from Melbourne and Sydney for about $1250 - to Los Angeles (14hr), then Delta to Salt Lake City (2hr) and on to Bozeman (75min). Fares and itineraries are similar for all airports listed and are low-season return, including taxes. At each airport there are hire cars and buses heading to the park. Australians must apply for US travel authorisation before departure at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov. Online travel agency zuji.com.au has flights, accommodation and holiday packages to the US with no booking fees.

Touring there

Private guides can be hired through Xanterra Parks & Resorts from $US450 ($513) a day for transport in a car (maximum three people), $US618 for a van (12 people) and $1085 for the historic yellow bus (13 people). Tax not included. See www.xanterra.com.

Entry to Yellowstone National Park costs $US25 a car, allowing unlimited entry for seven days, see www.yellowstonenationalpark.com.

Staying there

Lamar Valley is in the north of Yellowstone National Park. The closest accommodation is at Mammoth Hot Springs, in a hotel run by Xanterra Parks & Resorts. Rooms from $US117 (low-season mid-range room). See www.yellowstonenationalparklodges.com.

The closest town is Gardiner, Montana, where there is a range of accommodation, including the Best Western by Mammoth Hot Springs, with rooms from $US80 (low season). See www.bestwestern.com/mammothhotsprings.

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