Are we a grey wolf’s worst nightmare?


The Yellowstone National Park (YNP) grey wolf has had a colourful history. Depending on our circumstances, we both love or hate this animal. The question I ask is, are these feelings warranted or were they formed from the management and governance programs in place around the grey wolf?

There are two sides to every story.

From the past eradication, through to the present social perspectives of love and hate, does the grey wolf have a future in this new world it was reintroduced to?

The grey wolves successful reintroduction

The last pack grey wolf was killed in YNP in 1926. The 70 years following this eradication had detrimental effects on YNP. A number of ecological and biodiversity consequences were being realised because the elk and deer lost their predator.

Yellowstone National Park was dying.

To save YNP, a grey wolf reintroduction programme was designed and implemented as part of the conservation effort. The draft plan was completed in 1980 by the Northern Rocky Mountain Wolf Recovery Team, and was revised in 1987. However the first wolves were not reintroduced until 1995.

This was 15 years after the first plan was developed. Why did it take this long?

It was clear that YNP was in trouble and needed the wolf back. In 1994 the final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was produced and this included comments from over 160,000 public members. This plan represents the highest number of public comments received for any federal proposal of that time, which suggests there was a great deal of involvement from a number of stakeholders. The EIS included input from international organisations such as the IUCN. The conservation governance of the grey wolf in YNP was successful because of multiple stakeholder involvement.

The conservation governance of the grey wolf reintroduction in YNP had a strong and successful start. However, is this sustainable in the future?

Photo by Alan Vernon under Creative Commons
Image by Alan Vernon under Creative Commons

I love the grey wolf

The grey wolf is an iconic symbol highlighting the rawness of the natural world. There are a number of stakeholders who love the grey wolf and for a number of different reasons some examples include:

  1. Wildlife watching

There is a whole market of people who spend hours in YNP watching and waiting for the wolves to appear. These people want to witness the wolf in its natural environment and the experience is highly valued.

Image Creative Commons
Image Creative Commons
  1. Tourism

Tourism increased drastically from the wolves reintroduction. Tourists from all over the world come to YNP with the aim to see a grey wolf. This has brought in more money than ever anticipated to the area.

John Duffield, a mathematician and economist from the University of Montana, found that in 2005 the spend of visitors as a result of the wolves was estimated to be an additional US$27.7 million to YNP tourism as a whole.

  1. Conservationists

Conservationists view the park’s bigger picture and have seen YNP come out of ruin from the wolves reintroduction. The BBC environmental Journalist George Monbiot provided a Ted talk on the impact of the wolf. In his talk, he discusses how the reintroduction of the grey wolf not only transformed the ecosystem of YNP but also the physical geography, through changing the behaviour of the rivers.

Image by Miguel Hermoso Cuesta in Creative Commons
Image by Miguel Hermoso Cuesta in Creative Commons

I hate the grey wolf

The story is not all sunny. There is a growing sense of non-acceptance of the wolves in the areas surrounding YNP. Examples include:

  1. Human – wolf conflict

When a grey wolf interacts with a domestic dog, a fight begins. The dog is unlikely to win. This happened in one case where, as part of a study, I spoke to a family that had been very attached to their pet dog. A dog is seen as a member of the family. In their view, their pet had been slaughtered by a grey wolf. This led to a deep hatred of the wolf as it was viewed as a murderer.

  1. Livestock attacks

The grey wolf has the ability to leave the park boundary and prey on domestic livestock. This is easy prey. Wolf attacks have a huge impact on farmers’ livelihood. It is an extra challenge to deal with. Although the government provides compensation for a lost animal, the farmers believe that this does not compensate for the stress on the herds and the lost productivity. They wish the wolf to be eradicated.

  1. Social upbringing

From a young age we are taught to fear the wolf. This has been through stories such as little red riding hood and the three little pigs through to more recent blockbuster films such as the The Grey (released 2012) which depicts a pack of merciless killer wolves haunting a group of people.

With these types of connotations how are we supposed to socially accept the grey wolf?

Image by Madalyn McLeod
Image by Madalyn McLeod

Can the grey wolf survive?

The grey wolf had a successful reintroduction due to the governance process. There were multiple stakeholder engagements completed, with many views taken into consideration prior to the reintroduction. This helps explain the length of why the final EIS statement was not ready for 15 years.

A strong collaborative governance framework had been put in place.

However, this has not stopped the positive and negative wolf connotations growing. A multiple range of reasons exist because of this. Unfortunately, conservation governance is a complex system with multiple dimensions and stakeholders that the grey wolf is subject to. In 2012 the US government delisted the grey wolf from the endangered species lists from all three YNP states (Montana, Wyoming and Idaho). This takes away all legal protection for the wolf and allows hunting to happen. With the grey wolf facing these challenges, what will happen in the future? Can conservation governance evolve to provide the grey wolf with a stable environment?


4 thoughts on “Are we a grey wolf’s worst nightmare?

  1. A really interesting read! I found the clear descriptions of both the “hating” reasons and “loving” reasons very informative.

    Having done this research into the wolf in North America, what would you say with regards to big predator reintroductions to the UK? Or supporting the spread of the wolf throughout Europe? Do you think reactions in mainland Europe and/or the UK would be similar to those witnessed in the U.S., or would they differ?


    1. Hi greenwhale, thanks for your comment.

      I believe reintroductions will be possible however it will take a long time. There will need to be many consultations discussing where and how they will be reintroduced. This is important to be able to obtain acceptance of the reintroduced species. I think the reactions will differ because there has been a longer timeframe where the species have been absent in these areas than the grey wolf in Yellowstone.


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