Wolf Reintroduction into Yellowstone National Park
By: Rachel Geissinger

Biology Senior Seminar
Stan Grove
November 12, 1999

Thesis Statement: Wolf populations in America have declined since the European settlers moved in and took over the land native to the wolves. Since then the populations of wolves have been declining, until almost extinction in the Yellowstone and surrounding areas. Recently there has been a push for wolf reintroduction into this area and in the past three years it has been successful. Now the opposition comes from ranchers who fear loss of livestock due to increasing numbers of wolves in the park.

Wolf Reintroduction into Yellowstone National Park

I. Introduction
II. History
    A. Wolves in the United States
    B. Yellowstone National Park
    C. Wolf extermination
III.  Wolf Campaign
IV. Wolf Reintroduction
    A. First Year
    B. Second Year
    C. Success since 1996
V. The Ranchers Worry
    A. Compensation for the Ranchers
    B. Money Issues
VI. The Value of Wolves
    A. Economy
    B. Environmental
VII. Conclusion


Wolves have always been a symbol of the wild, free in spirit and roamers of the land. These animals are considered majestic and protectors of the wilderness. They have always roamed the western United States, although their population has fluctuated over time. Over the past 10 years wolf reintroduction into Yellowstone National Park has been a controversial topic to those of the United States. As of 1995, wolves have been reintroduced into the park. This has come with some strong opposition and yet has prevailed. The future of the wolf in Yellowstone park is now looking bright, although not certain since there still are those who want them banished again.


Many hundreds of years ago wolves roamed the entire North American continent with no barriers and very few predators. As settlers moved into the United States, wolves became more and more scarce in the wild of America. As the wilderness areas of the United States declined, so did the population of the wolf, until there were only a few spots in the wild where wolves could still be found.
 Wolves used to thrive in the western United States. There was ample game to hunt and plenty of places to live and wander. Until people moved in, wolves were settled. As European settlement expanded to the west, it began to take its toll on the wolves and their habitat. Clearing of the forests came first, which was then accompanied by significant over-hunting in this area (Noceker). Slowly wolves became concentrated into smaller and smaller areas in the west. Finally, they were assumed to be bothers to the ranchers and farmers and maybe a threat to those people who lived in the area.
 As the United States matured, people realized that preserving wilderness in its purest form for the people to enjoy was vital. Yellowstone National Park which spans parts of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, was the first area in the world to be designated a national park, to protect and preserve the natural scene for human enjoyment (Bahr). Created in 1872 by the department of the Interior, the park was developed by congress for preservation of its "natural curiosities or wonders and prohibiting wanton destruction of its fish and game" (defenders). Wolves were protected in Yellowstone.
 Wolves lived in the park for forty years, with claimed increasing nuisance to outsiders. The people around Yellowstone were complaining that the wolves, basically a nuisance to society, were killing animal. Thus after discussions and studies, congress agreed and the wolf extermination began. In 1914, the "Yellowstone wolf extirpation campaign began after congress appropriated funds for 'destroying wolves, prairie dogs, and other animals injurious to agriculture and animal husbandry' on public lands" (defenders). The killing of wolves continued until 1926 when the last two wolf pups of some 136 wolves were killed on a poisoned bison carcass (defenders). The eradication of wolves by hunting and other means soon cleared out most wolves in all areas of the United States. "By the 1940's humans had eliminated red and gray wolves from almost all of their historic range in the contiguous 48 states" (Noecker).
 For a number of years the wolves were not missed by most people, the ranchers and farmers were happy to have the pests gone. Coyotes, which began to take the place of wolves, started killing some livestock on lands around surrounding the park. Their population grew, creating a new problem. When the wolves were taken out of the ecosystem of the west, the ecosystem was altered, creating a missing link. Loss of the wolves not only created problems for overpopulation of coyotes but other animals as well. Elk and bison numbers were exploding, with numbers exceeding the carrying capacity, the ecology of Yellowstone was simplified and degraded (Baden). After a number of years, a effort began to fight for the return of the wolves.

The Wolf Campaign

Beginning in 1944 defenders of the wolves advocated the reintroduction into the Yellowstone ecosystem and the wider western region. The first noted defender, in 1944, was Aldo Leopold, a noted biologist who believed wolf restoration would provide positive results (defenders). There were many other experts who also believed that wolf reintroduction would be beneficial to the western United States. In 1973 congress enacted an "Endangered Species Act, mandating recovery planning for endangered and threatened species. Rocky Mountain gray wolf is listed as endangered" (defenders).
"The Federal government established a Rocky Mountain wolf recovery team," in 1975 (defenders). Despite the wolf recovery team, for many years there was a lack of action in the actual reintroduction of wolves for many more years. In 1980, the first Rocky Mountain recovery plan was drafted, however it did not include reintroduction into Yellowstone National Park. It was revised a year later to include Yellowstone (defenders).
 Finally in 1987, a representative from Utah, Wayne Owens, introduced legislation to require immediate Yellowstone wolf restoration (defenders). This bill "stipulated that each of the three recovery areas (Yellowstone, central Idaho, and northwestern Montana) must maintain a minimum of 10 breeding pairs for three consecutive years in order for Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to consider delisting wolves in this region" (Noecker). With the new legislation it was becoming a reality that wolves may again be placed in the wild of the park and surrounding areas. The Fish and Wildlife Service agreed this was a good idea and the Defenders agreed to compensate ranchers for the loss of livestock due to wolves (defenders). Many people had studied the effects of the wolf loss in the park and understood why it was beneficial to have them reintroduced into this ecosystem. Congressman Owens was quoted saying, we want "to restore balance to Yellowstone National Park. The wolf is the only missing piece" (defenders).

Wolf Reintroduction

The early 1990's began the final push and legislation for the wolf plan. Despite minor setbacks, including lawsuits, legislation was passed and final rules were set for the management of the wolves in the park and surrounding area. By 1995, the plan was set  for reintroduction, airplanes and biologists were sent to Canada to retrieve wolves for Yellowstone.
 "January 1995, twenty-nine wolves were captured from healthy populations in Canada and transported to reintroduction areas in the northern Rocky Mountains" (Noceker). The wolves were divided into two groups and placed in different areas. "Fourteen wolves were captured in the Rocky Mountains of western Alberta and brought to Yellowstone National Park. Fifteen additional wolves were captured and sent to central Idaho" (Maughan). The wolves were released differently; using either adjustment pens or direct release. The Yellowstone wolves were placed in pens for three months, each pen being an acre in size and located in the northeast part of the park. The reason for holding the wolves was to accustom them to the diet, sounds, and smells of Yellowstone, as well as giving them time to mate. The other wolves were allowed to directly enter the wild in Idaho, immediately having to fend for themselves (Maughan).
 The reintroduction went as planned. The Yellowstone wolves were purposely divided into three packs, with each named after the area they stayed in while they were in their enclosures. The packs included the Rose Creek Pack, Crystal Creek Pack, and Soda Butte Pack. All of the wolves were given numbers R2-R15 (Maughan). As they grew accustomed to their surroundings, biologists interacted with the wolves as little as possible, so as not to get them used to people. Before their release, however, they checked for diseases, vaccinated, and radio collared the wolves (Maughan). After all the tests were done, the release date was set for late March, the beginning of spring in Yellowstone.
 In the first year, the wolves roamed the countryside, mated, and lived their lives in relative peace. They found plenty to eat and seemed happy in their new surroundings. During the first year, three wolves were killed and none died of natural causes. This was low in comparison to what some biologists had expected, predicting the mortality rate to be as high as 50% (Moody). In January one wolf was found shot to death near a dead calf carcass. After necropsy, it was discovered that the calf had died of natural causes, thus proving the wolf had not done the killing (defenders). Another wolf died from a gunshot wound by a man, who despite claiming he thought it was a dog, mounted it in his cabin. A delivery truck in the park killed the third wolf (defenders).
 With the new territory and unknown surroundings, the wolves had a hard time thriving in their new environment. Although there were not a lot of deaths, many of the females did not reproduce, meaning very few new wolves in the park. In the middle of 1995, the reintroduction plan was in serious trouble. Would the program be a flop or could they try again?
 The wolf reintroduction plan was threatened. The original plan included reintroduction again in 1996, but was now threatened because of money issues. "The endeavor was temporarily stalled by a $200,000 funding reduction and the government shutdowns" (Moody). It was unsure if the wolves would live in the park again or if the reintroduction plan would work. With the help of donations from Defenders of Wildlife, Wolf Education and Research Center, private individuals, and cooperation from the province of British Columbia, wolf reintroduction in the second year was able to take place (Maughan).
 Thirty-seven wolves were captured in British Columbia and transported to the same reintroduction areas again in January 1996. Twenty were released directly into the wild in Idaho and the other seventeen were put in pens to be released at a later date into Yellowstone (Noceker). This time there was more success, with increased mating during the second year, indicating that wolf populations were on the rise. The reintroduction plan was now working, despite the setbacks they faced during the past two years.
 With the success of the two-year reintroduction plan, it was decided that there would be no need to have further wolves introduced. Wolf numbers were on the rise. This pleased many people, knowing the plan was finally working. "The wolves already released have reproduced well and suffered few losses and the program is not only under budget but ahead of schedule. I have concurred with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service that we forego any further reintroductionís in the immediate future" (Burton).
 There were numerous reasons why wolves would not again be reintroduced in 1997. If an area did start to lag in numbers of wolves, select wolves could be transported from one area to another, to even out pack numbers in the park (Burton). It is thought that with the numbers growing in the regions, if there were a problem, wolves could easily be moved. It was also believed that if they increased the number of wolves by bringing in new wolves there would be less of a chance of wolf pack conflicts (Burton). From then on, reintroduction of wolves from other areas would be assessed on a yearly basis.
 Wolf numbers have continued to increase since the program was stopped. Wolves now thrive in this area, which is natural since it was originally a natural habitat for these animals. As of August 1997, the Yellowstone population had reached almost one hundred and the central Idaho population has grown to about seventy (Noecker). If numbers continue to grow the wolf will be taken off the endangered species list and the mission of reintroduction will have been a success.

The Ranchers Worry

The success of the wolf has caused many to be unhappy. A majority of ranchers and farmers around the area are not pleased to have the wolf again in their back yards. It creates problems for them and causes excess worry. They continually wonder if or when a wolf will come at night and snatch one of their cattle, sheep, or other livestock. This is certainly a valid concern and one that needs to be addressed.
Ranchers argue that they have lived on the land longer than those who wanted to reintroduce the wolf have. These outsiders do not understand the lives of ranchers; thus they do not think it is a big deal if wolves are added to this delicate system formed by the rancher. Wolves symbolize wild and freedom for some people, but not the ranchers. "Newcomers to the west and urbanites insulated from rural Western tradition see the wolves as displaced natives who must be returned to the ecosystem. Conversely, many native Westerners view wolf reintroduction as the imposition of an alien culture" (Baden).
 Ranchers have these concerns and rightfully so. In many states, agriculture and ranching are a major portion of their livelihood and important to the economy. "Ranchers fear large losses of income due to wolf predation" (defenders). In the years since wolves were introduced back into Yellowstone, there have been some loss of livestock due to wolves. Montana Senator Conrad Burns has consistently been against the wolf plan. He states, "The livestock business is pretty important to MontanaÖ The wolf recovery plan threatens that industryÖ With the increasing number of wolves and other predators, this commodity is put even more at risk."
 Since the wolves have been placed back in this ecosystem, there have been a few problems with wolves killing livestock. It was unknown how much impact the wolves would have on the industry around the area. "By their own estimates, the Fish and Wildlife Service stated the reintroduction program would result in the loss of up to 50 cattle and 200 sheep per year. Although this is insignificant to the FWS, it is significant to livestock producers" (Burns). Since most people do not live on ranches, it is hard for people to understand the hardship of losing even one animal. Many of us would tend to think that one animal is not a big deal and that the ranchers should not be so concerned about it.
Another concern is if the wolves continue to grow in number, will the animals in the park be enough to feed them? What happens if the population grows and the only option is for the wolves to begin eating more and more livestock? If it would start to be a problem, then what would be done with the wolves?
 If ranchers do find wolves on their property killing one of their livestock, they must prove a wolf did it. Ranchers are allowed to hurt or kill a wolf only if they catch it killing or wounding one of their livestock and as long as they report it within 24 hours (FWS). Many ranchers wish for the freedom to kill a wolf if they need to and not having to tell it to someone. There is a major punishment for those who do kill wolves and donít tell. "The penalty for killing an endangered wolf, even in the protection of oneís livelihood, is $100,000 and a mandatory prison sentence" (AWSNA). It is very beneficial for a rancher to call in the killing of a wolf, even if it is a pain. Most think that this punishment is ridiculous and uncalled for.
 People worry how the ranchers are compensated for the livestock they lose. Although taxpayers feel bad for the ranchers, they donít want to pay for the replacement of the animals. This is a common misunderstanding. Government money does not compensate the ranchers. The Defenders of the Wildlife foundation set up the compensation fund. "This $100,000 fund was established with private contributions to compensate ranchers at fair market value for all verified losses of livestock with wolves" (Noecker). When livestock is killed in the area because of wolves and it can be proven, the ranchers are taken care of, they are not forgotten. In fact ranchers can benefit by letting wolves live and breed on their land. "Defenders of Wildlife also established the Wolf Habitat Fund in 1992 to award $5,000 to landowners who allows wolves to raise pups to adulthood on their land" (Noecker). "To date the Yellowstone wolves have killed about 80 domestic sheep, about eleven calves and cows, and one hunting dog, hardly the economic disaster predicted" (Maughan). Despite popular belief, ranchers are not losing out.
In other areas where wolves and livestock live together, it has been proven that they can live peacefully together without major problems and if there is a death, Defenders will pay immediately to farmers who have suffered a loss. So often if a bad thing happens and has the possibility of happening again, it will be blown out of proportion and everyone assumes it is a bigger deal than it really is. "Wolves kill less than one in 10,000 domestic animals each year in places such as Northern Minnesota, where wolves and livestock live together" (Buchanan). It has been shown in Minnesota and other places where wolves live that it is rare for a wolf to actually attack and kill a domestic animal. If wolves kill livestock, it is most likely because there is a food shortage or the wolf is sick. It is not a commonplace occurrence.
Ranchers also worry that if wolves do attack their livestock, how do they know it will not happen again? This is a very legitimate concern. There are actions taken against wolves that tend to be problematic. "Problem wolves would either be removed from the area, or killed, as necessary" (defenders), if the wolf persisted. Wolves are given only a few chances before they are killed for killing livestock. After a first offense, the wolf is relocated to another area of the park and if it happens again, the wolf will be killed by a biologist.
The loss of livestock due to wolves is not the only concern for the ranchers and others opposed to this project. Another major concern for people is the cost of this program. Despite the budget cuts for this program, many people agree, there is too much money invested in this program. There have been estimates as to how much this program is costing the people. "In Yellowstone, cost estimates on wolf recovery are from $200,000 to $1 million per wolf" (AWSNA). When one remembers how many wolves were reintroduced in two years, this is a lot of money. Believing there are better ways of spending money, advocates against the wolf want this money to be redirected to other places. Burns concern is "spending millions of dollars on this project, when Yellowstone Parkís infrastructure is falling down around our ears. There are millions of dollars of work which needs to be done within Yellowstone National Park and Glacier National Park." Money issues are a concern in most controversial topics. Some will say it is right to use money for the purpose and others will say it is not. Who is right?
 Wolves in the past have gained a bad reputation, in terms of harm they can do to people as well as animals. Many people are afraid for their safety if faced by a wolf. This is yet another concern for those people who believe this program has little benefit. Of course human safety should be an issue. Many have the belief that "nobody has the right to endanger my life or my childrenís lives by introducing predators that kill for a living" (EIS). There continues to be a controversy as to whether wolves have attacked humans in the past or not. Some reports say that attacks are rare but do occur. "It was clear that people still do believe in the horror stories of the wolf and the programÖ Many respondents stated as fact that they know wolves kill people" (EIS). On the other hand, it is also claimed "there are absolutely NO documented cases of a healthy wolf attacking a human in North America" (EIS). As long as wolves live among people there will always be a threat, but a very small one.

The Value of Wolves

Despite the opposition to the wolves by ranchers and farmers, most of the public is in favor of the reintroduction of wolves. A survey was done of "Yellowstone National Park visitors, found that they favored reintroduction three to one and that they believed, six to one, that a ëpresence of wolves would improve the Yellowstone experienceí" (EIS). The public in general was in favor of this plan, although people nearer the park, were not as excited about the plan as people from other areas.
 It was thought that the wolves would cause money loss in the Yellowstone area, when in fact wolves have increased the economy on and near the park area. "Wolves will increase tourism and thus add more money to local economies" (beckoning). People are now excited with the possibility of seeing a wolf while they are at the park. Some people will even go to for the specific point of trying to see a wolf. "More than 6,000 Yellowstone Park visitors saw the wolves in 1995, and at least six times that number spent considerable time in Lamar Valley looking for them" (Moody). The wolves have increased the economy not only in the park but all in the surrounding areas.
 Wolves have not been only an economic benefit to the park but also have benefited the ecosystem and helped balance it out. Before wolves were reintroduced, coyotes were becoming a problem in the park and the rancher. "The coyote will attack livestock and harass farmers more than any wolf" (Copeland). Yet the farmers rarely complained about the problems that coyotes were creating to them. The coyote number in the park has been cut in half now and the small vermin in the park and surrounding areas have also declined in number (Copeland).
It is not only coyotes and small animals that have been problematic in the park. In the last few years elk and bison numbers have grown by leaps and bounds because they have very few predators (Baden). With wolves now in the park, these animals can also be put in check, so the entire system can once again be balanced.
 With differing views on wolf reintroduction, some ethical issues have been created. What most people worry about is the cost that it has and will be to the taxpayer. Although it is unknown exactly how much money was spent on this program, it is known that it is small compared to many other projects the government funds. Another problem is the killing of wolves if they become a problem to ranchers. Should these wolves be killed? Is it right for us to bring in wolves and then kill them if we feel we need to? Do we have that right over the wolves? Finally the broadest question is, should we have done this in the first place? Can we take already settled wolves from Canada and ship them down here so we can wolves in the United States again? Should we have altered the ecosystem yet again?


There are many different opinions in this debate. Some will never be happy until all the wolves are gone again and others wonít be happy until they once again roam the entire United States. Where do we draw the line? Will the reintroduction plan grow in other areas? Do we have a right to move wolves and alter ecosystems even if we are trying to restore ecosystems we already messed up? Each person has his/her own opinion on this subject. While some people will continue to fight for the wolves to be exterminated again, others will continue to fight for their survival. In my opinion, wolves are a symbol of the wild and should be allowed to roam in the wild of United States.


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Bahr, Lauren S. Collierís Encyclopedia Volume 23. P.F. Collier and sons limited, New York, New York, 1994.

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Moody, Joan. ìHistoric Reintroduction Continues Despite Budget Cuts: Defenders Helps Fly Wolves to Yellowstone.î January 22, 1996. Visited: October 20, 1999. http://www.defenders.org/pr012296.html

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The Abundant Wildlife Society of North America (AWSNA), ìAn Argument against Wolf Reintroduction in Colorado.î visited: October 17, 1999. http://www.firstrax.com/antipro.htm