Once upon a time, wolves roamed most of North America freely, but due to human fear of them, they were nearly eradicated by the mid 1900’s. Gray wolves in the lower 48 states were put on the endangered species list in 1973 and plans began being made to help increase their numbers (Brown). The reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park (YNP) began in 1995 with the release of 14 wolves from Canada. Another 17 were released the following year (Robbins). Almost 4500 gray wolves now live in the United States (not including Alaska) (Smith). They were recently reclassified as threatened, except for the Southwest where they are still listed as endangered.
The reintroduction of wolves has been a highly debated issue for years. The decision to reintroduce wolves has incited outcry among hunters and ranchers as well as the states of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. At the same time, it has been praised by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, environmental groups, and biologists.
Critics of the program have raised a number of concerns. One of the main issues is ranchers’ fears of possible loss of livestock. Twenty-five calves were killed by a band of wolves on a ranch in northwest Wyoming, 50 miles south of YNP. Attacks have also been confirmed in Idaho and Montana in recent years. The ranchers are only allowed to shoot the wolves if they catch them in the act of killing their livestock (Dinger). If a wolf attacks livestock, it is moved to a different location by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. If it does it again, it is killed (Bangs). The Defenders of Wildlife have paid over $155,000 in compensations to ranchers since 1995 (O’Driscoll). Although the ranchers’ frustration and anger is understandable, there are compensated for their losses and any problem wolves are taken care of.
Another issue against the wolf reintroduction is brought up by fish and game departments and hunters who fear that herds of elk and other ungulates will decrease, which may cause lower limits and tags to be given each year. Fish and game departments fear the loss of revenue that that may cause (Dinger). Regarding hunting, the actual effect of wolf depredation is unknown. History shows serious problems in that hunting has been curtailed from 6-19% and completely stopped in other instances. Wolf depredation has caused the total destruction of some wild game herds in certain areas. As one wildlife biologist put it, “Really there isn’t any room for harvest by man if you have a healthy wolf population (Mader).”
There are many different reasons people are in favor of the wolf reintroduction. Many biologists feel that the Yellowstone ecosystem was becoming too bottom-heavy (not enough predators), and that the wolves’ return will help balance the elk herds in YNP, which would in turn help to balance the whole Yellowstone ecosystem. The park service culled elk herds until 1968 when public outcry and Congress made them stop (Levy). During the many years that wolves were absent from Yellowstone and after culling was stopped, elk numbers exploded and due to this, many elk starved to death because there was too many elk and not enough food (Brown). Many of the elk that died during these harsh winters were old and/or sick animals, which the wolves would have normally preyed upon if they had been present (Bangs). Since the wolves have returned, swollen elk herds have decreased by about 50%. This has allowed the aspen and willow tree populations, which had greatly suffered from elk predation, to repopulate.
This also allowed beaver populations, which were absent, to once again thrive. The beaver dams allow more succulents, which grizzlies eat, to grow and also improves trout and aspen habitat (Robbins). These trees and animals are all linked together: wolves often prey on beavers; beavers need aspen for food and dams; wolves control elk numbers and browsing patterns, which allow more aspen to grow; beaver dams create more aspen habitat. Coyote numbers increased dramatically while wolves were absent, although this caused other scavenger populations to fall too low. Biologist Robert Crabtree of the Yellowstone Ecological Research Center has estimated that the number of coyotes in the park has dropped by about 50 percent since the wolves’ return (Levy). There has also been an increase of grizzlies, weasels, wolverines, foxes, and other scavengers due to wolf kills (Kluger). Biologist Doug Smith, leader of the Natl. Park Service’s Yellowstone Wolf Project, says, “With the wolf back in place as the top carnivore, biodiversity is greater. The return of the wolf is the best thing to happen to Yellowstone in the past century (Levy).” Wolves may even benefit songbirds. Scientists have found that the large numbers of moose inside the park have decimated the willow groves, which many types of songbirds nest in. They hope that with the grizzly populations increasing, they will help to balance the moose herds (Levy). This would indirectly help the songbird populations inside the park and would increase diversity.
The wolves’ have also brought an increase in revenue to the Yellowstone National Park from tourists who have come specifically to see or even hear the wolves (Schlickeisen). Environmental groups are in favor of the reintroduction for these reasons, as well as the fact that a missing native species is once again back in Yellowstone.
It’s clear that this is a delicate issue that can incite strong opinions on both sides. The wolves’ return to the Northwest signifies not only a return to wild-ness, but the beginning of a return to healthy and thriving natural ecosystems. Their story is a heartening one because it suggests that we can play a hand in restoring our native ecology. Although there may be problems that need to be ironed out, hopefully humans and wolves can soon learn to live peacefully together.
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Dinger, Daniel R. “Throwing Canis Lupus to the Wolves: United States V. McKittrick and the Existence of the Yellowstone and Central Idaho Experimental Wolf Populations under a Flawed Provision of the Endangered Species Act”, Brigham Young University Law Review,
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O’Driscoll, Patrick. “Gray Wolves Encroaching on Ranchers.” USA Today 18 Nov. 2004.
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Smith, Douglas W., Rolf O. Peterson, Douglas B. Houston. “Yellowstone after Wolves”, Bioscience, 1 April 2003: 330-340.