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A Wild Anniversary: 25 Years For Yellowstone Wolves

“…the best wolf habitat resides in the human heart. You have to leave a little space for them to live.”  – Ed Bangs (Former Wolf Recovery Coordinator U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Yellowstone: The “little space” wolves were given 25 years ago today when the federal government gave the green light to return wolves to portions of their native range in the West. The reintroduction of gray wolves to our first national park has been described as a near-miracle, having occurred at one of those rare moments when stars align in the political sky.

Modeled off of the red wolf reintroduction to the southeast in the late 1980s, Yellowstone’s recovery effort quickly surpassed that of its predecessor in terms of measured environmental and economic impacts.

A Return of Wolves and Healthy Ecosystems

As Mother Nature’s wildlife managers, wolves regulate prey populations to enable many other species of plants and animals to flourish. Initiating these trickle-down effects can improve ecosystem function and resilience, as evidenced by the return of wolves to Yellowstone National Park.

“In the 1990s, elk were still keeping the willows short, usually less than 2 feet tall, and that led to stream widening—oversized cross sections of channel and a drastically reduced frequency of overbank flows. But by 2017, willow heights greater than 6 feet were prevalent and canopy cover over the stream, which had essentially been absent in 1995, had increased to 43 percent and 93 percent along the west fork and east fork, respectively.”

Increases in willow height, greater canopy cover, and stream-bank stabilizing courtesy of well-vegetated banks all point toward a recovering riparian/aquatic ecosystem.

Read more from PHYS.ORG:

An Increase in Tourism and Economic Benefits

NPS estimates that wolf watchers bring $35M tourism dollars to the greater Yellowstone area annually. Moreover, a 2013 NPS report shows that 3,188,030 visitors to Yellowstone National Park that year spent almost $382 million in the surrounding communities. That spending supported 5,300 jobs in the area.

WCC Director of Operations Spencer Wilhelm wildlife watching in Yellowstone National Park in 2018

A 2017 scientific visitor survey found that the number one draw to Yellowstone is wildlife – specifically wolves and grizzly bears.

Despite the popularity of wolves, many of the park’s neighboring communities are avidly anti-wolf and sometimes the more popular the wolf, the bigger target they become. Although hunting is not permitted within the park, wolf trophy hunts are authorized by every state bordering Yellowstone.

Communities surrounding Yellowstone in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho should give greater consideration the economics of wildlife watching. Only then would they would understand that wolves are more valuable alive than dead, and their current policies are indeed killing the “golden goose.”

So let us use this anniversary as a reminder of what we gain when we protect wolves, and what we lose when we do not. Thanks to wolves, we have a stronger connection to a healthier, and much wilder, world.