Editor's note: This is the fourth and final part in a series of articles looking at the impact of reintroducing wolves in Yellowstone National Park 25 years ago. For a look into its effect on ranchers, click here.
YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK — Early conservationists and hunters were unenthusiastic about predators generally and wolves in particular. President Theodore Roosevelt, among the nations most prolific and celebrated hunters, whose administration drastically expanded predator eradication programs referred to wolves as "the beast of waste and desolation." Many of Roosevelt’s spiritual successors still reflect this view.
But what is fact? What is fiction? And what is exaggeration?
Wolves prey on elk and humans prey on elk — that much is clear. But evidence suggests wolves and hunters prey predominantly on separate segments of elk populations. A 10-year study of wolf predation found that the average age of a wolf-killed elk cow varied between 13 and 16 years old. Hunter-killed cow elk average between 2 and 6 years old and constitute the most fertile, reproducing population. Although the study also said, "regulated hunter harvest of young adult females is unlikely to reduce elk numbers" alone.
The greatest impact by wolves on elk numbers and thus hunting opportunity likely results from wolf-killed calves. It's important to note that mountain lions, and bears have been shown to prey more heavily on calves than wolves, and there are still questions regarding how much natural predation adds to or replaces loss to winter, disease, and starvation.
There have been drastic reductions in some elk populations and corresponding hunting and viewing opportunities. Many hunters in tracking both real and perceived reductions since wolves were reintroduced remain convinced wolves are to blame. Thanks to 25 years of data, we now know this interpretation, though popular, is likely inaccurate — exaggerating the effects of wolves and neglecting dozens of less publicized influences that have occurred in parallel with wolf recovery, such as a warming climate. For more on this topic make sure to read this previous article in this series.
Beyond population fluctuations caused by dozens of factors, wolves along with other recovered predator populations may have also affected elk distribution behavior. Anecdotally, hunters and outfitters may see fewer elk in areas where they once congregated in greater abundance, but observations may not reflect actual numbers. The best indicator of elk population health and viability remains proximity to population objectives.
Elk herds in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana are all reported as generally within or above population objectives. Idaho is even reporting hunter harvests matching the historic highs of the 80s and 90s — prior to wolf reintroduction.
With depictions of wolves in nursery rhymes, folk tales, TV and movies, it is natural to have questions regarding the safety of people who share the landscape with these long-absent predators. According to Yellowstone’s chief wildlife biologist Doug Smith, there were roughly 20 attacks on humans in North America during the 20th century and all nonfatal. He noted that some attacks have since occurred and two of them were fatal. Other estimates put the number of documented wolf attacks at 32 since 1781. Zero attacks have occurred in Greater Yellowstone in the 25 years since wolves were reintroduced.
There are a number of recent incidents worth discussion. In 2018 a research student climbed a tree to avoid a wolf pack. The encounter did not appear to be aggressive and it is thought that the pack in question may have denned in the area. In 2019, a camper in Banff National Park in Alberta was attacked, largely mirroring a similar event in Minnesota six years before that — the state’s first known wolf attack.
A fatal attack occurred in 2010 near Anchorage, Alaska, when Candice Berner, a school teacher, was killed by a pack of wolves. The participating wolves were identified and killed. They were determined to be healthy and are not believed to have been habituated or food-conditioned, which is normally the case in wolf attacks. The attack remains troubling and unique.
By comparison, mountain lions are blamed with about two dozen fatal attacks in North America in the last 100 years, according to Outside. Fatal and nonfatal bear attacks in Greater Yellowstone averaged between one and two a year. The likelihood of being attacked by a bear or mountain lion is extremely remote — wolves even more so.
Attacks by predators are largely tied to habituation, food conditioning, starvation or disease. Even more so in the case of wolves, according to Smith. He stated that unlike bears and mountain lions, wolves "never attack a person on their first encounter with a human." He added in a recent Facebook live video that, "wolves are probably the least dangerous large carnivore in North America." The data seems to support Smith’s belief.
Like all wild animals, wolves should be viewed from an appropriate distance. People who share space with all kinds of wildlife should be diligent about keeping food and trash inaccessible. Whether a wolf, bear, elk, bison, or squirrel; habituated animals represent the greatest threat to people. Regarding human behavior and its effects on animals, it's often been said, "wildlife management is comparatively easy; human management is difficult."
A New Era
For centuries, land and wildlife management were predominantly calibrated toward agricultural and hunting interests. And while farming, ranching and hunting remain central to management strategies, they now share that space with a growing interest in preserving and restoring natural systems. Wolves are, in many ways, emblematic of this shift in attitudes and policy.
In the early days "people weren’t thinking about ecosystems," Smith said. Yellowstone and other areas were set aside mainly in an effort to preserve scenery and geologic curiosities. Historically, predators were excluded from the charge to preserve wildlife, even in protected areas. As a result, coherent, intact ecosystems have been mostly relegated to the world’s most remote reaches, if not lost completely.
Since the restoration of species including wolves, Yellowstone is the closest thing we have to a fully-intact ecosystem within the contiguous United States. We live in a world that is "largely artificial." Smith says. For him, restoring Yellowstone’s ecosystem is about "restoring nature in the midst of humanity."
"It’s real. It’s not artificial and contrived," he said. "Wolves really are a lure for people ... people are streaming in to see wolves because it’s real nature, it’s real life and we don’t get that anymore. … It means a great deal to a lot of people — the world even."
Illustrating this point, retired interpretive ranger Rick McIntyre shared a number of stories including his partnership with Make A Wish, helping kids realize their dream of seeing wolves in the wild. According to Smith, there is likely no better place to see wolves than Yellowstone.
The story of wildlife and the story of public land management is really the story of people. Not everyone has the same vision of what stewardship or responsible use means, but if we substitute fact with fiction, and reality with fable, we cripple the ability to be wise stewards. People and wildlife alike suffer as a result.
"Wolves are among the most studied species in the world, Smith says, adding they have been closely monitored and studied despite the National Park Services charge to have "a light touch."
He added in a recent Facebook live interview, if wolves are not closely studied, "people will make stories up."