Wolf Reintroduction

Wolf populations had been in steady and hard decline over the early 1900′s, but wolves are being reintroduced to the landscape now.

“How to manage wolves

In North America, the wolf runs into controversy almost everywhere it goes. For years, conservationists and state wildlife officials in Alaska have fought over whether wolves should be hunted, especially whether hunters should be allowed to use airplanes or helicopters. In Canada in 1987, provincial officials in British Columbia stopped a wolf hunting and trapping season after wolves in tow packs were killed. Conservationists and wildlife biologists said the hunt jeopardized continued wolf recovery.

In a 1983 dispute involving Minnesota’s wolves, the Department of the Interior, under then-Secretary James Watt, proposed to restore wolf management to Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources, which, in turn, proposed a sport-hunting season for wolves. Defenders of Wildlife, the Sierra Club, and 13 other conservation groups sued and, in 1985, won. The Eighth US Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling that said the Interior Department culd not turn over management of wolves to the state as long as the wolf was protected by the Endangered Species Act and the department could not allow a hunting season for sport purposes unless there was no other way to control the wolves. “You can’t enforce the act and allow private individuals to take wolves,” says Brian O’Neill, a Mineapolis lawyer and Defenders board member who litigated the case.

Legally, the ruling affected only Minnesota, but it raises wolf management questions elsewhere. If wolves are reintroduced into Yellowstone, for example, should ranchers be allowed to shoot any tht leave the park and threaten livestock? Most conservationists say no, arguing that only federal agents should kill depredating wolves. Ranchers and their Washington representatives say yes, otherwise they will oppose introduction of wolves into Yellowstone.

Yellowstone reintroduction

With 2.2 million acres, Yellowstone is the largest US park outside Alaska. Indeed, the Yellowstone ecosystem, which includes Grand Teton National Park, seven national forests, and other federal and state land in three states, totals nearly 14 million acres. Not all that area is designted for wolf recovery, but most is prime wolf habitat, says Ed Lewis, executive director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, a regional conservation group.

Wolves are the only major species living in the area during historical times not now present, says Lewis, adding an oft-repeated theme. “Wolves are the missing link here.” Wolves in Yellowstone would help check elk and other ungulate populations, thereby reducing the number of animals that starve every winter.

The idea of reintroducing wolves into Yellowstone first surfaced in the late 1970s, says Hank Fisher, Defenders’ northern Rockies representative. But it gaines official endorsement only in 1987 when the US Fish and Wildlife Service adopted, after several years’ delay, a wolf recovery plan for Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana.

The plan calls for ten breeding packs with approximately 100 individual wolves in each of three main recovery areas. Under the plan, biologists would allow wolves to continue recolonizing northwestern Montana and central Idaho naturally, Fritts says. In Yellowstone, however, wolves would be reintroduced using animals caught in Canada.

Almost immediately, the wolf recovery plan ran into criticism. Cattle ranchers and sheep growers warned that sooner or later wolves would attack their livestock. Perhaps more important, many westerners fear conservationsts would use the wolves to limit their ability to graze, harvest timber, and mine on federal lands outside Yellowstone. Many hunters and outfitters also argued that wolves would kill game animals and eliminate sport hunting in the area.

Reflecting those concerns, when then-US National Park Service (NPS) Director William Penn Mott endorsed the reintroduction plan in 1988, Rep. Ron Marlenee (R-MT) declared, “Montana needs wolves like we need another drought.” And Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney, then a Wyoming representative, wrote Mott stating, “I don’t know how to make myself any clearer on wolf recovery. I am strongly opposed to it. I would like to see some evidence that officials in your department get the message.”

They did. Under political pressure, Mott announced that he was putting “on hold” plans to issue an environmental impact statements (EIS), a preliminary that could, if favorable, ease the way to wolfreintroduction. Later, when Rep. Wayne Owens (D-UT) introduced a bill to force the Department of the Interior’s National Park Service to do an EIS, Sen. James McClure (R-ID) amended the Department of Interior appropriations bill in 1988 and in 1989 to prohibit money from being spent on an EIS.

Instead, Congress ordered a joint NPS-FWS study of how wolves might affect game species and other animals and how they would be managed in and outside Yellowstone. The NPS-FWS report, issued in May 1990, said wolves would likely reduce elk numbers by only 10-20% from their average summer population of 31,000. Similar reductions were forecast for deer, moose, and bison, and little or no loss was seen for bighorn sheep and pronghorn. The report also said wolves would have little or no effect on grizzly bears, a threatened species, but would probably reduce coyote numbers.

The report further said some wolves may follow elk and other prey in their winter migrations outside the park. Although those wolves and individual dispersers might kill some cattle and sheep, the number of livestock lost would likely be small and growers could be compensated.

Finally, the NPS-FWS report said reintroduced wolves could be managed under a 1982 amendment to the Endangered Species Act, called section 10(j). The amendment allows FWS to declare reintroduced animals “experimental.” That designation, which was used to reintroduce red wolves into a wildlife refuge in North Carolina in 1987 (bioScience 37:313), could give, FWS the authority to permit ranchers to kill wolves ranging outside recovery areas. The legality of who can kill wolves under experimental designation rules has yet to be tested in court.”


Knight, Dennis H., and Linda L. Wallace. “The Yellowstone fires: issues in landscape ecology.” BioScience 39.10 (1989): 700+