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Op Ed: The Rewards of Wolf Reintroduction

Making a comeback.
Making a comeback.
Getty Images/Michael Cummings
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Under a new law passed by voters last November, Colorado Parks and Wildlife is planning to engage the public and prepare a plan to reintroduce wolves to Colorado’s Rocky Mountains by the end of 2023. The agency has the advantage of knowing how the restoration of wolves was done in Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho after two decades of planning. In January 1995, wolves were translocated from Canada to Yellowstone and central Idaho.

The effects of their return have been well recorded. In Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, there are more elk today than were there in 1995. Twenty years after wolves were returned in those same states, wolves killed one in 10,000 cattle, and three out of 10,000 sheep. No one has been harmed by a wolf, or made ill. Of more than 110 million visitors to Yellowstone, no one, including none of the 2.6 million campers, has been harmed by a wolf.

Meanwhile, this year legislatures in Idaho and Montana passed laws to drive wolf populations down to remnants of their current numbers. This in spite of increasing evidence that wolves and cougars select and kill deer and elk infected with always-fatal chronic wasting disease.

Had gray wolves not been translocated to Yellowstone in 1995, the 1994 gray wolf environmental impact statement expected that they would be recovered in the park by 2025.

Among expected economic impacts, the EIS listed: visitor expenditures increase $23,000,000/year; wolf management cost $480,000/year.

In 2006, John Duffield and others estimated the economic impact of wolf restoration was $35.5 million. By 2017, park visits had risen by 145 percent and inflation had risen 23 percent, so the net income was $65.5 million annually to the surrounding counties.

The effects of wolves on the park have been studied intensively since their arrival. Annual reports are available at go.nps.gov/yellwolves. An easy-to-read summary of the first twenty years is in Yellowstone Science Volume 24 Issue 1, June 2016, Celebrating twenty years of wolves, available at nps.gov/yellowstonescience.

Research began soon after the first wolves arrived. Efforts by Wolf Project staff from 1995 to 2018 included completing 5,120 flight hours; visually locating wolf packs 52,064 times; recording 34,509 hours of wolf behavior; and locating wolves with GPS technology 351,143 times. They hiked, skied or snowshoed 20,007 miles. They captured and collared 412 wolves, and re-collared 601. They located 8,173 carcasses, found that 6,637 (80 percent) were elk, and necropsied 5,194 carcasses, of which 278 were wolves.

Based on that field work, the staff has produced 85 scientific publications, three books, 22 book chapters, 37 popular articles and 27 technical reports. Two of those books, Wolves on the Hunt (2015) and Yellowstone Wolves (2020), are encyclopedic in content, yet readable. Each includes a URL for access to outstanding videos of wolves captured by Robert K. Landis, who has produced numerous DVDs of wolves.

Naturalist-author Rick McIntyre was assigned in 1995 to monitor wolves in Lamar Valley. He watched and recorded the behavior of wolves seasonally from 1995 to 1998, and year-round from April 1999 to 2019. He spent 7,895 days afield, equivalent to 21.6 years; at one stretch going out every day for over fifteen years. That’s 89.6 percent of the days that the wolves have been in the park since their release from the pens in March 1995.

He tallied 100,000 wolf sightings during that time, some days watching from pre-dawn to last light. From 1995 to 2018, he gave over 3,000 talks to over 28,000 people. He recently estimated that he helped over 100,000 people see wolves, often sharing a look through his scope.

Rick has written three books on Yellowstone wolves: The Rise of Wolf 8 (2019), The Reign of Wolf 21 (2020) and The Redemption of Wolf 302, due out in October 2021. Books on famous female wolves and books for children are in the works.

By mandating the return of wolves, the voters of Colorado have set in motion the restoration of natural processes that will invigorate deer, elk and moose, and help to keep their forage base productive. Beyond their physical effects, the presence of wolves will lift our spirits. As Aldo Leopold put it, “Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf.”

Norman Bishop has been studying wolves since he was a member of the Yellowstone Center for Resources team that restored them to the park in 1995.

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