Benefits and Costs of Wolves
What are the benefits and costs of wolves living in their native habitats and coexisting with people?
Both people and ecosystems benefit from having wolves living and thriving in their native habitats. Each benefit impacts the various priorities of people. Some people think the benefits wolves provide for the health of an ecosystem is the priority. Other people are more interested in the positive effect wolves have on economics and financial gains. Still other people argue that the most important benefit to coexistence is the wolf’s inherent right to live peacefully in its native habitat. There are also potential costs to consider when wolves and people live near each other. These costs can impact individuals, commercial businesses, and the state or federal agencies tasked with managing wolves.
Go to Living with Wolves: The Benefits of Wolves to read about some cool benefits of wolves living in their native habitat.
How do wolves help the ecosystem?
Wolves are the top predator in their ecosystem, meaning they have no natural predators in their food web. Decades of scientific research paint a detailed picture of the wolf’s impact on its ecosystem, both from its presence and absence. When wolves have been removed from an ecosystem, research shows that a series of changes, or trophic cascade, can happen with other species in the ecosystem. These changes are often seen as negatively impacting the health of the ecosystem. On the flip side, when wolves have been returned to an ecosystem, the series of changes to other species and the health of the ecosystem are often viewed as positive.
Let's look at how wolves have impacted Yellowstone, Rocky Mountain, and Lake Michigan's Isle Royale National Parks.
1. How have wolves affected the ecosystems of Rocky Mountain, Yellowstone, and Lake Michigan's Isle Royale National Parks?
Walk around Rocky Mountain National Park with John Emerick, an ecologist, writer, and researcher. Here he discusses the ecological impacts that wolf extermination had on the park's ecosystem.
Listen to this conversation between the lead scientists on Yellowstone wolf population about the impacts of wolves in this ecosystem.
2. What are the differences in Yellowstone National Park’s ecosystem with and without wolves?
Explore these interactive pictures comparing Yellowstone’s ecosystems without and with wolves. Living with Wolves: Ecosystem.
Points to Ponder
Write or share with a partner the changes that are most surprising or intriguing to you.
3. How did the absence of wolves impact the Yellowstone National Park ecosystem?
The wolves of Yellowstone National Park offer a powerful case study of the effects of a top predator on its ecosystem. For an in depth look at how the absence of wolves impacted the Yellowstone ecosystem, check out the next page in Explore titled 'Yellowstone Without Wolves.'
4. How has Lake Michigan’s Isle Royale National Park ecosystem been affected by its unique wolf-moose relationship?
- Get familiar with this northern Michigan island by reviewing the park map and information. Then compare and contrast the park with the mountains of western Colorado.
- Check out the graphed data on The population biology of Isle Royale wolves and moose: an overview.
- This data represents 50 years of wolf-moose dynamics on the island. Describe the wolf and moose population dynamics over time. What happened to the moose population when the wolf population increased? What happened to the wolf population when the moose population increased?
- The dilemma! What is the plight of these island wolves, and how are wildlife managers trying to resolve the dilemma? To answer these questions, read articles from 2013-14, followed by the 2019 article.
The 2013-2014 Dilemma
- Should we save the wolves of Isle Royale? from National Geographic.
- Should we let the wolves of Isle Royale disappear? from Cool Green Science Blog
- Isle Royale National Park: The history and beauty of a treasured wilderness from National Park Reservations.
The 2019 Update
- Three wolves added to Isle Royale population during fall 2019 wolf project from National Park Service.
- Wolves at Isle Royale from National Parks Conservation Association (2019).
How do wolves help the economy?
How do we estimate the dollar value of wolves living in their natural habitat? For some people, this economic benefit is the driver for supporting wolves coexisting with people. These economic benefits are organized in three groups:
- Consumptive use value: Value created by removing (consuming) wolves from the ecosystem, by hunting for example.
- Non-consumptive use value: Value created by wolves living in their ecosystem. These include tourism, wildlife viewing, and guided hikes or programs.
- Existence value: The willingness of some people to pay for wolves to exist, even without any financial benefits to people. They simply want to guarantee that wolves will survive and thrive for generations to come.
1. Consumptive Value
When you consume a resource, it disappears when you use it. Thinking of wolves as a resource, they are “consumed” through hunting practices. They give consumptive value when money is exchanged for people killing and removing them from their ecosystem. Hunting is now allowed in much of the Rocky Mountain wolf range, which provides income for those states. One direct financial value from wolves comes from the purchase of licenses for hunting and trapping. In Montana, licenses have brought in $100,000s per year! Hunting and trapping wolves also creates indirect financial value when these people spend money for travel, lodging, food, equipment, hunting classes, and hunting guides. Private ranches are able to charge over $2400 per hunter and many $10,000s for groups of hunters.
2. Non-Consumptive Value
There is also financial value in keeping wolves alive and thriving in their native habitats. Ecotourism, including wolf viewing, photography, and guided trips, are all non-consumptive ways that living wolves create income by thriving in their native habitat. People pay for taking or viewing photos and videos of wolves. People pay to visit parks where wolves live, to buy books and clothing about wolves, and to attend programs with experts to learn about wolves. Take a look at what’s happened after wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park in 1995. Ten years later the number of visitors to the park had increased 5-10%, and wolf-related expenses brought in almost $50 million in the surrounding states of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana.* Guided hikes and multi-day trips to see wolves can cost $100s to $1000s.
3. Existence Value
Some people will donate money and support national parks to protect wolves living in their native habitat even though they may never see the animals. They want to make sure these animals are around for others to experience today and for generations to come. Some people are willing to pay for the satisfaction of knowing others are working to provide a safe place for wolves to live and coexist with people in their native habitats.
What are the costs of coexisting with wolves?
Coexisting with wolves can create costs that impact people financially, either directly or in the choices they make. These costs could impact individuals, commercial businesses, and the agencies in charge of managing wildlife.
1. Personal costs
Personal impacts are when people’s lives are changed because of the presence of wolves. An example is people changing their plans for outdoor activities in areas where wolves live because they are afraid of them. As we know from the Facts and Myths page, wolf attacks on people are very rare, and fear of wolves is exaggerated by the media we consume. Examples of personal costs tend to come from individual stories instead of scientific research, so it’s unclear what the true costs might be.
2. Costs to income of commercial businesses
Some hunting and ranching businesses could lose income from sharing land and resources with wolves. For hunters, the impact on game to hunt can be hit or miss. Depending on their location, the number of elk could increase, stay the same, or decrease because of the presence of wolves. When looking at the big-picture, wolves don’t kill enough elk to have a significant effect on income from or opportunities for people who hunt elk. When there is an impact, though, it can be felt at local levels by individuals who rely on hunting for their livelihoods.
For ranchers, the commercial cost is much greater if their livestock are harassed or killed by wolves. Overall, the cost of wolves preying on cattle and sheep in the Rocky Mountains is less than 1% of the annual gross income from livestock. Like hunters, though, the financial impact on individual ranchers can vary greatly. While the income of many ranchers is not significantly affected by predation loss, a few can take a major financial hit. Understanding the reasons for these uneven impacts and how to reduce them becomes a high priority when wolves are reintroduced to an area.
3. Cost of public management
When wolves return to their native habitat, governments at the federal, state, tribal, and county levels take charge of managing them. This requires funding to support jobs and management resources. State wildlife departments monitor wolves, prepare management plans and reports, and coordinate hunting licenses. The federal government’s US Fish and Wildlife Service plays a role in managing wolves according to their status as endangered species. Part of the cost of public management is also for compensation to people who have had financial losses caused by wolves. A common example is compensation to a rancher for the death of sheep or cattle by wolves.
Click here for the Wolf Policy Information Sheet