Beginning in 1872, the United States started to protect wildlife and the natural environment through the establishment of Yellowstone National Park. It was the first real effort to preserve the way the land was in its current state instead of developing it into a manmade resource for exploitation.
In 1884, the first efforts to eradicate predatory species from nature were legally enforced in Montana. The decision was made to remove wolves, coyotes, bears, and cougars that were killing their livestock and game animals. Anyone who could successfully present evidence that they had removed one of these threats was given a bounty of $1. By 1914, the U.S. Biological Survey was working to completely remove wolves from Yellowstone National Park. By 1927, almost all wolves were gone from Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana.
It took less than a decade for biologists to recognize that an imbalance in the ecosystem was occurring. By allowing an overpopulation of grazing animals in these regions, there were fewer new growth trees and plants. That meant there was more erosion, fewer birds, and other animals that were dependent on these items for their habitat. Humans had created their own need for wildlife management.
In the 1960s, the first ideas of wolf reintroduction were presented to Congress. Their belief was that the reintroduction of natural predators would help to stabilize the region. The gray wolf became protected under 1973’s Federal Endangered Species Act, but this action continues to be controversial and implemented through a patchwork of state laws.
These are the pros and cons of wolf reintroduction to consider.
List of the Pros of Wolf Reintroduction
1. Wolves help to increase the biodiversity of a region.
Wolves do more than hunt and kill. They are the providers of food for a variety of different species. Their presence in a region helps to influence how coyotes behave – which offers less predictability when wolves are not around. Ravens, vultures, and eagles are all supported by the activities of this pack animal.
Because of their hunting activities, the grazing population is lower in a region. Over the span of 15 to 30 years, that means there are more trees available for habitats. This creates a larger bird population, along with animals like beavers who rely on these resources for their own needs. Even fish populations improve because of changes to streamside grazing that occur with their presence.
2. Wolves help to boost eco-tourism opportunities.
When the National Park Service worked to reintroduce wolves to Yellowstone National Park and other critical regions across the United States, there was a significant boost in ecotourism that occurred. People wanted to get outside and start exploring in the hopes that they could see a wolf. These activities created an economic boost for local economies, with many governments choosing to use the extra money as a way to protect their forests and other endangered species.
Over 150,000 people from around the world come to Yellowstone National Park each year specifically for the wolf population. This activity provides over $35 million in economic benefits to the three states that support the park. Wolf-watching tours add another $5 million in local revenues.
3. Wolves help to provide a balance to local ecosystems.
We already know that the presence of predators helps to keep the natural ecosystem balanced. There may be some fluctuations in population numbers at times, but the packs stay populated based on the availability of food. When there aren’t enough grazing animals available for the wolves to hunt, then their population numbers decline. Although some packs look toward livestock (or even pets) as a food source in this situation, that happens only because we have intruded on their space – not the other way around.
After wolves were virtually eliminated from Yellowstone National Park, one of the grazing herds in the region totaled up to 35,000 animals at one point. When that many grazers are in an open field at once, it can have a devasting impact on the environment.
4. Wolf packs can have controls placed on them to prevent livestock losses.
The primary reason why many people are against the idea of wolf relocation is the same thought that started the eradication of the species in the first place. When farmers and ranchers have their livestock targeted by packs, then they can experience severe financial losses in some seasons. Even compensation for this issue may not cover all of their expenses.
We can track the movement of wolf packs through the use of GPS devices and trackers attached to the animals. By seeing where their movements are occurring, ranchers can know when it is safe to allow their livestock on grazing lands. Officials are also using surgical alterations and contraception as methods to control the overall size of the population. Enclosures can prevent pack intrusion into some areas as well.
5. Wolves rarely target livestock, even when they are hungry.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture claims that wolves killed over 4,300 cattle in 2015 in the Northern Rocky Mountains. The Fish and Wildlife Service published that they could only verify that 161 of the losses were because of wolf pack activities. The methodology for USDA data collection comes through unverified sources, which are then calculated using statewide extrapolations instead of looking at actual numbers.
Even with those potential errors in place, domestic dogs kill 100% more cattle than wolves do in the average year. They also kill almost 2,000% more sheep compared to the average wolf. Where wolves are present in the United States, they are responsible for less than 1% of unwanted cattle, calf, sheep, and lamb losses. From 2014-2015, 0.4% of livestock out of 119 million cattle and sheep died from mammal and avian predators combined. Up to 98% could be related to disease.
6. Wolf populations create an ecology of fear.
Biologists support the idea of wolf relocation because they consume ungulates like deer and elk. This activity reduces their numbers more effectively than what human hunters can provide. An even better benefit is the creation of a culture of fear within the local ecosystem. Because the grazing animals are unsure of when the wolf pack might attack, they do not stay in the same spot to eat because a lack of mobility increases the risk of being hunted. That allows more grasses and trees to grow, supporting the local habitats.
In Yellowstone National Park, biologists noticed that the open fields in the region were more vegetated almost immediately after wolves were reintroduced to the area. By providing food for scavengers as well, the entire ecosystem receives a better balance in part because the animals experience more fear overall.
7. Wolf deterrents are a minimal cost to pay for agricultural protections.
The deterrents that are necessary to protect livestock from wolves are rudimentary and affordable. Something as simple as a rope fence with flags attached can be an effective deterrent for wolves according to published research from 2003. Placing a simple fladry barrier around a pasture would decrease the potential for interaction between livestock and a hunting wolf pack. When this information combines with known territory boundaries and migration patterns, it is possible to reduce the deaths of all animals.
From May until October each year, Idaho sheep ranchers move up to 25,000 animals along a highway as part of the Wood River Wolf Project. In the last 9 years, not one wolf has been killed and only 30 sheep have been lost in total.
8. Wolf protection help is available to ranchers and farmers who want it.
The Defenders of Wildlife work with ranchers who want to mediate wolf hunting activities on their property to identify possible attractants that might increase the risk of suffering a negative event. Even the presence of guard dogs on a property can be enough to reduce pack hunting behaviors. Many of the services that are offered with this advantage are offered for free or at a minimal cost, which negates the complaint that it costs too much to prevent wolf attacks on livestock. The only issue is that people must be willing to engage in this activity to make it useful, which is a choice that not every person is up for doing.
9. Wolf relocation can improve the health of local grazing herds.
Hunting wolves do not generally go after the healthiest members of a grazing herd. Their goal is to target the animals which are the youngest or the weakest. By culling the weakest and sickest animals, elk, deer, and even moose populations increase in resiliency because the strongest can survive. When officials studied pack behaviors in Yellowstone National Park after the reintroduction of wolves there, they found that the first grazers to be hunted were those suffering from disease and arthritis.
The presence of wolves may even help to remove animals that suffer from chronic wasting disease.
10. Wolves bring a level of intelligence to ecosystems that other animals cannot offer.
One of the most famous wolves in history is known simply as “06” because of the year of her birth. When she was disbursed from her pack, the wolf spent a winter on her own. She found mates, taught the male wolves how to hunt, and she could take down a single elk by herself. Hunters shot her when the pack ventured outside of the confines of Yellowstone National Park looking for food, even though they never targeted livestock.
The intelligence of the wolf, combined with its ferocity, can be frightening to people. We tend to target what we fear as humans, which is why these animals can struggle to survive. By reintroducing packs to their natural environment, we can give people an opportunity to know them better. When we see their social connections and loyalty first-hand, then the animals don’t seem to be as scary.
List of the Cons of Wolf Reintroduction
1. Wolves can have a detrimental impact on agricultural economies.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife keeps a close eye on an area that was once roamed by a pack of wolves in the area of Profanity Peak. There were seven members of the pack removed by officials in 2016, and then they and local ranchers developed additional non-lethal deterrence methods to protect livestock in advance of the grazing season. Although investigations into livestock deaths found that black bears and cougars were responsible for losses, it is not unusual for wolves to receive blame first.
That activity followed the deaths of at least two female wolves after five cattle were found killed on federal grazing land. At one point, the state decided to kill all 11 wolves in the pack, despite the fact that only 19 packs and 90 wolves are active in the state.
2. Wolf relocation comes at an expense to taxpayers.
When packs are relocated to an area, then there is an expense that taxpayers must fund even if they do not support the activities. The average price to bring a pack into a specific region is between $200,000 to $1 million depending on the number of animals involved and the distance they must travel. When there are other issues affecting human populations, such as hunger, homelessness, and unemployment, some people would say that the funds going to help wolves would be better spent helping people instead.
3. Wolves can harm the livelihoods of people where they hunt.
Wolves are predatory animals. Although they do not seem to target livestock with their hunting activities, packs will target sheep, cows, and even horses if there is a lack of grazing animals for them to target. Ranchers receive compensation for their losses when wolves attack their property, but then replacing these animals can be a costly experience. It is also notoriously challenging to prove that a loss occurred because of wolf targeting. Some insurance policies may not even cover the income issue from the loss of an animal if a wolf kill is not provable.
4. Wolves can divide grazing herds and populations.
Wolves are not the only creatures who hunt grazing animals for food. Even we hunt deer, elk, and similar animals to meet our hunger needs. When packs are hunting the same animals that we are, then the herds become divided. This process can further reduce their population, create challenges in tracking to fill tags, and reduce the effectiveness of other eco-tourism opportunities. People might come to see the wolves and boost the economy that way, but fewer hunters would arrive to wash out many of the financial gains that are experienced by wolf relocation activities.
5. Wolves face a patchwork of inconsistent legal protections.
Following a 2011 act of Congress that directed the reissuance of a delisting rule, wolves are not federally listed as an endangered animal in Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and parts of Oregon and Washington. Minnesota lists the species as being “threatened” instead of endangered, which also changes the levels of protection that are available to packs. The rest of the continental 48 states continue to follow the legislation from the 1970s. That can make it challenging for wolf relocation to occur because there is no guarantee that the effort will provide success.
6. Wolf relocation could add even more animals to a region.
There are places in the Pacific Northwest where wolf packs are already roaming. Adding more animals to the region would only cause more problems because it would change where the boundary lines for each pack are. That could create a greater potential for harm throughout all of the disadvantages listed here because of the additional animals. Although the wolves could reduce an over-abundance of grazing populations, they would require additional food supports after providing balance to the system.
7. Wolves have a history of attacking humans under specific conditions.
Candice Berner was an avid jogger and teacher living in Chignik, Alaska, which is about 75 miles southwest of Kodiak. She was discovered dead along the road by snowmobilers who found wolf tracks in the snow around her. The coroner ruled that Berner’s death was due to multiple injuries due to animal mauling. Wolves from the local pack were culled in response, with necropsy results found that there was no underlying reason for the attack. It was the first such incident in the state to use DNA evidence to confirm the result.
Although wolf attacks on humans are rare (and often involve rabies when they do happen), it is still a risk that must be taken under consideration when reintroducing packs to their predatory areas. Even education and training opportunities to help people avoid this minimal risk cannot stop every conceivable event.
8. Wolves from other species are sometimes brought into the region instead.
The goal of wolf relocation is to restore the natural species to its former environment. Because the exact species may no longer be in the area, some projects have taken to the idea of bringing in a different wolf instead. Mexican wolves were even brought into Yellowstone National park in the 1980s to help restore the local population. When we bring the incorrect species into a region, there is always a chance that the results which occur become unpredictable.
One More Thought on Wolf Relocation Pros and Cons
Wolves have become extinct in several localized areas across the United States because we moved into their territory. We are the ones who started to bring livestock into their hunting grounds. Then we are the ones who began to target the animals because of their natural predatory instincts.
The wolf quickly learned that avoiding livestock was to their advantage, and so they decided to stay away unless there was no other option. We, on the other hand, are only starting to understand what it takes to co-exist with this predator.
The pros and cons of wolf relocation will always be controversial to some extent because one group in society is asking another to sacrifice their potential financial wellbeing for the good of everyone else. Although there are economic benefits to consider with wolves that can help to stimulate local economies, farmers and ranchers may not see any of that cash. We must approach this issue with caution, seek out opinions on all sides, and then proceed in a way that makes sense for everyone.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.