Wolves of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem

Wolves of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem

The Management of the Wolves (Canis lupus) of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem

By: Grayson Murphy

The gray wolf (Canis lupus), a native to the greater Yellowstone ecosystem (GYE), has had a complicated history in the last several centuries since coming into contact with human development in the area. As one of the largest carnivores native to the Yellowstone ecosystem, the wolves provide numerous top-down and bottom-up benefits to the ecosystem’s complex food web and health as well as benefits to the local economy. Despite their native status, historically poor management, harvest, exploitation, and control of the species has led to several near extinction events for the species in the GYE. To resolve the erroneous loss of this natural resource from the GYE, wolves began to be reintroduced to the area in 1995. Now, 25 years after the reintroduction of wolves to the area, noticeable positive changes have been observed in the GYE as well as the local economy. While current management and policies of the wolves are rapidly evolving, the primary goals are to learn from past mismanagement and create a sustainable symbiotic relationship between the health of the wolves, the ecosystem, and the various local economic interests. 

The Yellowstone ecosystem contains a menagerie of native large carnivores including wolves, bears, coyotes, cougars, and bobcats and others (NPS 2019). As one of the top predators in their area, it comes as no surprise that wolves are observed to have both strong top-down and bottom-up effects on the trophic structure of the GYE (Dobson, A.P. 2014). This means that sitting at the top of the food chain wolves have the ability to affect the populations and health of their explicit prey as well as creating a cascade of effects seen even through to the lowest levels of the ecosystem food-web hierarchy. The primary food source of wolves in the Yellowstone area has been found to be elk with the supplementation of some bison and moose in their winter diet (Smith, D.W. 2003). Models predicted between a 5-30% reduction in elk population with the reintroduction of wolves to the ecosystem in 1995. While some decline in the elk population was initially observed, the elk seem to have stabilized and were not negatively impacted by the wolves (Smith, D.W. 2003). Additional evidence of the value that wolves have in fostering a healthy GYE is observed in the increased health of willows, aspens, and other riparian areas (Smith, D.W. 2003).  It is theorized that these benefits are likely due to the decreased grazing from lowered elk and moose populations as well as more varied grazing habits that the ungulates developed to cope with the reintroduction of a new predator (Dobson, A.P. 2014). In particular, the aspen growth in YNP was the first significant growth observed in the park in over half a century (Dobson, A.P. 2014). The increased health of populations of flora and fauna observed across the board after the 1995 reintroduction of wolves to the GYE provides persuasive evidence of just how valuable the wolves are to the ecosystem. 

In addition to providing value in the benefits that wolves offer the local ecosystem health, they also bring value to the local economy. Historically, the economic value of wolves was primarily in the contribution of their hides to the fur-trade. During the 19th century wolves were trapped, poisoned, and hunted for their hides, however, overharvesting led to their near extinction in North America by 1880 (Weaver, J. 1978). Recognizing the value of such a loss, efforts were made to protect the wolves and allow for their numbers to rebound. Nonetheless, by 1914 wolf populations had reached a level once again considered too large; “a decided menace to herds of elk, deer, mountain sheep, and antelope” (Weaver, J. 1978). So began a long period of mis-management of wolf populations within Yellowstone National Park and the surrounding boundary areas. In present day, wolves are valued economically for much more than their contribution, or lack thereof, to the dying fur trade. Many ranchers in the area have cited concerns of wolves degrading the value of local livestock by preying on their precious livelihood. However, it has been observed that coyotes consume far more livestock than wolves and furthermore that wolves help keep coyote populations lower as the more dominant species (Dobson, A.P 2014). In addition to protecting the livestock from coyote predation, is has also been posited that wolves help to limit the spread of chronic wasting disease (CWD) from deer and elk to livestock by preying on the sick or weak wild ungulates most likely to carry the disease (Dobson, A.P 2014). While it is not often recognized directly by ranchers themselves, the presence of wolves in the GYE offers significant economic benefits in protection of livestock. As society places an ever-growing importance on wildlife for non-consumptive purposes (i.e. wildlife watching, appreciation, photography, etc.) YNP as well as the surrounding local economies collect substantial benefits from the presence of a healthy and visible wolf population (Smith, D.W. 2016). Between the benefits received by local ranchers, YNP, and the surrounding towns the reintroduction of wolves in the GYE has shown to be of substantial economic value in modern times. 

Despite the wealth of economic positives that wolves bring to local industry, the management and control practices of the wolf populations in and around YNP have had a troubled past. Once the population size was deemed too large in 1914, an intensive control and removal of the wolves began ending with the removal and harvest of an estimated 136 wolves by 1926 (Weaver, J. 1978). This was likely a gross underestimate as well seeing as how the only methods of assessment during the time relied solely on YNP journals, Army scout diaries, ranger reports, and other less reliable sources (Weaver, J. 1978). By the 1940s, there were estimated to be no remaining resident wolf packs in the GYE (Weaver, J. 1978) and once again erroneous management of the species led to their near extinction in the area. After decades of little to no observed wolf activity in the GYE, wolves were reintroduced to the ecosystem in 1995-1996 in an effort to revitalize the ecosystem and bring value back to YNP despite the objections from local ranchers and hunters in the area (Smith, D.W. 2016). By 2003 populations were considered recovered in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming which led to the lifting of harvesting bans on the animals that might find themselves outside the YNP boundaries (Smith, D.W. 2016). The current regulations limiting the harvest number of wolves has gone through several iterations since then. State wildlife management is attempting to not only maintain a healthy balance of wolf populations and packs in the Yellowstone area but they also must consider the populations of elk and other animals available for hunting activities as well as the growing public reverence of wolves for wildlife watching (Smith, D.W. 2016). Some recent management policies are designed to protect wildlife for non-consumptive purposes in the GYE however hunting remains a key and deep-seated component of the North American conservation model (Smith, D.W. 2016) that future wolf management policies will undoubtedly need to address. 

The current and future management of the gray wolf as a natural resource of the GYE continues to be an ever-evolving situation. The reintroduction of wolves to the area was only 25 years ago which is a short time-span in ecosystem relativity leaving much room for improvement as the years go on. Given the historical mismanagement of wolves in the area but also armed with the evidence of the positive value that the wolves offer the ecosystem and economy, it is clear that the current health of the wolf population must be maintained in longevity in order to maintain the health of the GYE and local economies. Should the management practices moving forward continue to evolve and be flexible as more information on the wolves in the area is collected, a healthy and sustainable symbiotic relationship between the wolves, economy, ecosystem, and all other stakeholders involved may be reached. 



Dobson, Andy P. 2014. “Yellowstone Wolves and the Forces that Structure Natural Systems.” PLOS Biology 12, no. 12. (December): 1-4. 

National Park Service (NPS). 2019. “Yellowstone Mammals.” Accessed October 10, 2020. https://www.nps.gov/yell/learn/nature/mammals.htm

Smith, Douglas W., P. J. White, Daniel R. Stahler, Adrian Wydeven, and David E. Hallac. 2016. “Managing wolves in the Yellowstone area: Balancing goals across jurisdictional boundaries.” The Wildlife Society 40, no. 3 (2016): 436-445. 

Smith, Douglas W., Rolf O. Peterson, and Douglas B. Houston. “Yellowstone after wolves. (Articles).” BioScience 53, no. 4 (2003): 330+. Gale Academic OneFile (accessed October 9, 2020).

Weaver, John. 1978. “The Wolves of Yellowstone.” US Department of the Interior National Parks Service Natural Resources Report 14: 1-40. 




Socio-political Dimensions of Conflict Associated with Wolves of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem

By: Grayson Murphy

The wolves of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) have faced not only several near extinction events but they have also become symbolic of the larger socio-political conflicts that American society faces in regards to natural resource management. Today, the wolves of the GYE are representative of larger divisive debates over power, property, and nature in the United States (Wilson, M.A. 1997). The reintroduction of wolves into the GYE and ongoing management of the large natural predators over such an expansive ecosystem naturally involves stakeholders from a variety of viewpoints, life situations, locations, and cultural backgrounds. Amongst these stakeholders, several are identified as being more vulnerable than others due to social, political, and cultural factors out of their control. The fundamental value differences amongst these stakeholders leads to three key social issues: 1) differential access to power, 2) conflicting ideologies about what private property means, and 3) divergent beliefs about the intrinsic value of the natural environment. This creates a polarizing and multi-faceted divide on the issue. A “wicked problem” is described as one of social and/or political nature that “…is difficult or impossible to solve for as many as four reasons: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems” (Kolko, J. 2012).  Due to the variety of stakeholders, fundamental differences of value and culture, and the deeper social and political issues with which the wolves are inexorably tied, the management of wolves in the GYE is indeed a wicked problem. Due to the nature of wicked problems, it is not expected that the management situation of the wolves will ever be “solved”. However, through the use of cooperative and flexible management techniques, equitable involvement of all stakeholders, and not a strictly scientific and techno-rational approach, it is believed that a balance and equilibrium can be established between the wolves of the GYE and the stakeholders.

There are a number of reasons as to why there is such a vast and comprehensive list of individuals, groups, and organizations with a vested interest in the wolves of Yellowstone. The GYE encompasses more than 18 million acres, 2.2 million of which is a national park, and the total area is under the jurisdiction of 28 federal, state, and local government agencies in addition to numerous private ownership interests (Wilson, M.A. 1997). Martin Nie further expands on the complexity of stakeholders involved in this issue with his book Beyond Wolves : The Politics of Wolf Recovery and Management. Nie cites the interests of biologists, ranchers, hunters, political representatives, animal rights and welfare activists, and wolf advocates and fans as being invested in the management of wolves in the Yellowstone area (Nie, M.A. 2003). All of the various, and often conflicting, bodies of knowledge, cultural values and ethics, and opinions of these vested groups adds to the complexity of wolf management as a natural resource. 

These numerous individual interests are generally broken down into two main groups of stakeholders: the environmentalists and the wise-use advocates. The environmentalists tend to include those upholding scientific rationale and supporting conservationist and preservationist values. They see the reintroduction of wolves into the GYE as the last missing link to preserving a prehistoric ecosystem and with benefits to all (Wilson, M.A. 1997). As the longest running, and only continuous, project in the region the Yellowstone Wolf Project includes a wealth of wolf data collected over 25 years that is invaluable to biologists and will also help with wolf management decisions for many years to come (Yellowstone Wolf Project). On the other hand, the wise-use advocates represent those in extractive industries with vested economic interest in land and natural resources such as mining, ranching, farming, outfitting, and other land reliant economic activities (Scarce, R. 1998). Despite contradictory empirical evidence, many wise-use advocates believe the extractive industry to be the economic backbone of the region. These stakeholders fear that the wolves will not only threaten their economic prosperity but that they also represent a deeper issue: the takeover and and social control of private property (Wilson, M.A. 1997). The differences in values and opinions on what constitutes private property and how and what restrictions and regulations it should be held to is one of the three main social issues of wolf management and will be discussed later. 

With such a variety of stakeholders across all levels of government, community, and culture it is only natural that there are several groups that find themselves in vulnerable and/or underrepresented positions. The Native American tribes have had close relationships with wolves for thousands of years which has led to the development of many tribal cultural connections and values linked to the large carnivore (McIntyre, R. 2020). In many of the indigenous tribal cultures there exist stories about wolves and how they are great teachers and symbolize guidance and protection (Fogg et al. 2015). The tribes and wolves lived in reciprocated harmony and respect (Fogg et al. 2015) and even a Lakota elder is quoted as citing the importance of restoring wolves to the West (McIntyre, R. 2020). However, despite their long history and deep connection to the large canids, the Indigenous people of the GYE are rarely represented in the research literature concerning wolf management and policy making. 

Much like the First Peoples of the Yellowstone area, the rural towns bordering Yellowstone National Park (YNP) also face challenges in representation as a result of differential power dynamics and a lack of resources. These “bordertown” residents are often divided on the value, if any, that they see the presence of wolves offering (Scarce, R. 1998). It has been found that wolves rebound and populate well in rural areas previously dependent on extraction economies. This is due to the lack of human interaction and freedom to roam unhindered (Ericsson et al. 2008). However, rural towns also tend to face higher rates of unemployment, urban migration, and job loss which puts them at a disadvantage economically (Ericsson et al. 2008). With private land ownership as one of the few viable options left for those in rural bordertowns to make a living, the stakes are higher and wolves represent a very real and rational threat to livelihoods (Scarce, R. 1998). Located near YNP, the concerns and voices of these bordertowns are often drowned out by the omnipotent and more powerful agendas of the State and Federal Governments and Wildlife Management. 

Out of the myriad of stakeholders involved in the management of the Yellowstone wolves, 3 main social issues can be identified as the cause of the greatest conflict: 1) differential access to power and representation, 2) conflicting ideas about what “private property” means, 3) divergent beliefs about the value of the natural environment (Wilson, M.A. 1997). The differential access to power and representation is clearly demonstrated by the lack thereof afforded to rural bordertown communities and local First Peoples. The mistrust and protest of the social control of wild animals on private property exemplifies the fundamental differences and ideologies about land ownership that exist between governmental agencies and private property owners in the US. Lastly, the deeply respectful cultural relationship that Native Americans have with wolves alongside the conservationist attitudes of environmentalists contrasts starkly with the threatening narrative assigned to wolves by those tied to the land economically. This serves to demonstrate just how divergent the beliefs and values about the natural environment really are. 

To conclude, the management and evolution of this wicked problem will continue to involve the participation and representation of interests from many groups with a multitude of viewpoints. The use of a collaborative and flexible approach amongst stakeholders is a popular and important emerging trend in the management of wolves in the United States (Nie, M.A. 2003). It is recommended that this collaborative approach and equitable representation be given to all stakeholders and most especially those who have been underrepresented in the past; namely the local Native American tribes and rural bordertown communities. While the biologists and science offer great guidance on the management of the large predatory species, including non-scientific, non-technical, and non-rational data and information gathering about wolves is also recommended. By being inclusive of all bodies of knowledge, the many conflicts associated with the management of wild wolves in the GYE will be able to be better understood and thus a more firmly rooted equilibrium between stakeholders and wolves will be able to be established. 



Ericsson, Göran, Göran Bostedt, and Jonas Kindberg. 2008. “Wolves as a Symbol of People’s Willingness to Pay for Large Carnivore Conservation.” Society & Natural Resources 21 (4): 294–309. https://doi.org/10.1080/08941920701861266.

‌Fogg, Brandy R., Nimachia Howe, and Raymond Pierotti. 2015. “Relationships Between Indigenous American Peoples and Wolves 1: Wolves as Teachers and Guides.” Journal of Ethnobiology 35 (2): 262–85. https://doi.org/10.2993/etbi-35-02-262-285.1.

Kolko, Jon. 2012. Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving : A Handbook & a Call to Action.

Austin, Texas: Ac4d.

Mcintyre, Rick. 2020. The Reign of Wolf 21 : The Saga of Yellowstone’s Legendary Druid Pack. Vancouver: Greystone Books.

Nie, Martin A. 2003. Beyond Wolves : The Politics of Wolf Recovery and Management.

Minneapolis: University Of Minnesota Press.

Scarce, Rik. 1998. “What Do Wolves Mean? Conflicting Social Constructions Of Canis lupus in ‘Bordertown.’” Human Dimensions of Wildlife 3 (3): 26–45. https://doi.org/10.1080/10871209809359130.

Wilson, Matthew A. 1997. “The Wolf in Yellowstone: Science, Symbol, or Politics?

Deconstructing the Conflict between Environmentalism and Wise Use.” Society & Natural Resources 10 (5): 453–68. https://doi.org/10.1080/08941929709381044.

“Yellowstone Wolf Project.” n.d. Yellowstone Forever. Accessed October 29, 2020. https://www.yellowstone.org/wolf-project/?gclid=CjwKCAjw0On8BRAgEiwAincsHLc_MhaV9c1-d9Lq9Z9lWwYGHZArCseC9x5kD-W8McU-PIizVg53vxoCT1wQAvD_BwE


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