How and why are wolves a spark for conflict?

Remember your Quest question – How do people and wolves peacefully coexist with minimal conflict? If coexisting means living in the same area as wolves with little conflict, then we now need to know

  • What is conflict? 
  • What types of conflicts can happen with wolves? 

A conflict is a struggle. This definition names two types of conflicts: Coexistence is when sustainable wolf populations co-occur with human activities and livelihoods while having minimal human-wolf and human-human conflict. It may be surprising to hear that conflict between people about gray wolves (human-human conflict) is much more common than conflict between people and wolves (human-wolf conflict).

Human-Wolf Conflict (Direct)

Negative interactions between people and wolves that harm people, wolves, or both.

Human-Human Conflict (Indirect)

Negative interactions between individuals or groups of people about wolves that are harmful to relationships between those people. These interactions are often about influencing how others think about wolves or about having the power to make decisions about wolves.

Points to Ponder

  1. Why is one called direct and the other called indirect?
  2. How would you explain the difference between these two types of conflicts to a friend?

Human-Wolf Conflict (direct)

Human-wolf conflict is a struggle between wolves and people, or what people care about, that causes harm to wolves, people, or both.

The World Wildlife Fund defines human-wildlife conflict as, “any interaction between humans and wildlife that results in negative impacts on human social, economic or cultural life, on the conservation of wildlife populations, or on the environment.” 

Why do these human-wolf interactions end as a conflict? Because some people see these animals as competitors for land or resources, instead of seeing them as animals people can coexist with.

Interactions Between People and Wolves


How do interactions become conflicts?
In nearly every instance of human-wolf interaction, wolves are physically close to people, or something people care about, because they are trying to meet a basic need for food, water, shelter, space, or safety of family and home. The rubber meets the road when the needs of the wolf collide with the needs of the person. This competition for needs sets up the conflict.

Why are these interactions rare?
It all starts with an interaction between wolves and a person or something that person cares about. These interactions are actually quite rare because wolves, like many large carnivores, are generally afraid of humans. They choose to keep their distance whenever possible.

  1. Look at the examples of interactions in the graphic and read the text below. Why do some interactions lead to conflicts while others don’t?
  2. Why are interactions with wolves rare?

Rancher-Wolf Conflict

This direct conflict is usually between wolves and the rancher’s cattle or sheep. Wolves are predators that survive by hunting and killing their food. Wolves have a better chance of a successful hunt without injury when they go after animals that are the easiest and safest to kill. The conflict is obvious – killing cattle, sheep, or other domestic animals can be easier than killing elk. But this choice directly impacts the ranchers’ ability to provide for themselves and their families. The livestock are the rancher’s livelihood. For some ranchers, losing even one animal can mean less money to spend on food and other necessities. 

Hunter-Wolf Conflict

Some hunters feel they are in a tug-of-war with wolves for the same big game. Actually, even though both may be hunting the same species, they are not after the same individuals. What’s that mean? While human hunters seek out the strong healthy elk or deer, wolves hunt the weak, old, or sick animals. This is true for any healthy predator. Why? Those animals are easier to kill without getting injured. A benefit of the wolf’s natural hunting strategies is improved health of the herd. Now that’s something the hunters can appreciate! 

That tug-of-war can become more complicated in places with harsh winters when big game are more vulnerable, or places where wolves and hunters are also competing with coyotes and mountain lions for the same animals. In some of these instances, wolves have reduced game populations in localized areas. 

Points to Ponder

Either summarize each conflict (rancher-wolf and hunter-wolf) in a sentence OR share the key phrases or sentences that help explain the conflicts.

Visit these web pages for more about conflicts with wolves.

Killing Wolves

Living with Wolves

How can killing wolves make things WORSE for livestock?  Go to this webpage to find out how that could be so. It's is a big ah-ha moment once you understand wolf behavior and family structure.

Ranching Solutions

Living with Wolves

Protection of livestock is a #1 concern when coexisting with wolves. Read this webpage to discover some tools and practices ranchers are using to keep livestock and wolves apart and reduce livestock and wolf deaths.

Points to Ponder

  • How can killing wolves actually make things worse for cattle, sheep, and other livestock? 
  • What kills more livestock than wolves? 
  • What are some tools of the modern range rancher that help reduce the number of cattle, sheep, and wolf deaths?

Human-Human Conflict about Wolves (indirect)

If conflict means “a struggle,” and 

if human-wolf conflict is a struggle directly between wolves and people or what people care about,  

then human-human conflict is a struggle between people that indirectly affects wolves. In this social conflict, people with different views are competing to influence how others think about wolves, or for the power to make decisions about wolves.  

Human-human conflict is the most common type of conflict involving wolves. Understanding why will help you figure how to reduce the conflict so people can peacefully coexist with wolves. 

Why is there conflict between people about wolves? 


Identity can affect conflict

Personal identity. People have their own unique identities and experiences that shape how they view the world, other people, themselves, and yes – even wolves. Your personal identity is a combination of lenses through which you see the world. These lenses include, but are not limited to, your race, gender, age, class, culture, spiritual beliefs, and where you live. All can influence your view on wolves and how they might coexist with people.

Group identity. While people with one common identity can be grouped together, that does not mean their other identities are the same. For instance, not all people who identify as one of these groups – ranchers, hunters, conservationists, or outdoor recreationists – think the same way about coexisting with wolves. Take a look at these contrasting views that different ranchers and conservationists can have.

Different Views of  Ranchers

Different Views of  Conservationists

View 1

Prioritizes ecosystem functioning, and believes that wolves are an important part of a healthy ecosystem regardless of their impact to ranching activities.

View 2

Prioritizes their bottom-line, and believes that wolves should only exist where they do not impact ranching operations.

View 1

Believes that because humans are responsible for removing wolves, we are also responsible for reintroducing them.

View 2

Believes that regardless of how wolves left, now that they are gone they should stay gone so as not to upset the new balance after wolf extirpation.


Distinguishing facts from myths can affect conflict

Wolves create a contradiction in people. While they are one of the most scientifically researched animals on Earth, they are also one of the most misunderstood. Conflict between people can happen when their views or factual understandings clash, and they feel they haven't been heard or understood.

Perceptions are how you interpret or understand coexisting with wolves. They are influenced by your culture, folklore (or media), education, values, beliefs, personal experiences, as well as your media choices and the views of the people around you. In contrast, facts are based on a body of evidence. Misperceptions are often based on myths or misinformation, not facts.

 How can empathy help reduce conflict? 

When you add empathy, conflict about wolves begins to resolve. To have empathy means you try to identify, imagine, and understand the thoughts, feelings, and perceptions of another person who has different views about coexisting with wolves. When someone tries to understand another person’s different perspective about wolves, they are more likely to be appreciative than angry. You’ll have an opportunity to practice empathy for different citizen perspectives in the Yellowstone Simulation later in the Quest. 

Questions to Consider

  1. Create a picture with words (WordArt or Wordle) that describe your identity?
  2. What is the message given about group identity in the table showing rancher and conservationist views?
  3. How can a person’s distinction between facts and myths influence conflict?
  4. How does empathy play a role in conflict?