Wolves Return to Yellowstone
How was the decision made to reintroduce wolves into Yellowstone?
How are decisions made when there are so many different perspectives about bringing wolves back into an ecosystem? This was the dilemma in Yellowstone National Park in the 1990s, and is now the dilemma in Colorado. To anticipate discussions about reintroducing wolves into Colorado, let’s explore the robust debate that guided the 1994 decision-making process about whether or not to reintroduce wolves to Yellowstone. The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) took the lead in the decision-making process and held public meetings to gather citizen input.
What can we learn from the decision-making process used in Yellowstone? Working in USFWS teams, you will first sift through these citizen perspectives and then sort them by anticipated positions on wolf reintroduction. You will also learn more about the concept of ecosystem services (various benefits that nature provides to people and society) and compare these benefits to the potential negative ramifications of each wolf reintroduction scenario.
Identify the Ecosystem Benefits to People
How might ecosystem services affect our decision?
Ecosystem services are the many benefits that nature provides to people and society. These benefits include, but are not limited to, clean water and air, crop pollination, nutritious food, nutrient-rich soil, and erosion protection. Ecosystems also provide recreational, cultural, and spiritual benefits.
- Gather more information about the four types of ecosystem services here:
- What ecosystem services can you identify in Yellowstone?
- What Yellowstone ecosystem services will be helpful to know about when comparing the wolf reintroduction scenarios? Why would this information be helpful?
Note: If you want to become more familiar with Yellowstone National Park, watch this video: Plan Your Visit from The National Park Service.
Compare Proposed Reintroduction Scenarios
What are the pros and cons of different ways to reintroduce wolves into Yellowstone?
Five different scenarios were considered for how to reintroduce wolves into Yellowstone:
- Scenario 1: Reintroduction of experimental populations of wolves. The designation “experimental wolves”* gives the people who manage wolf populations more freedom in decision making and gives the wolves less protection.
- Scenario 2: Natural recovery (no action taken). Encourage wolf populations to naturally expand into Idaho and Yellowstone.
- Scenario 3: No wolves. Change laws in order to prevent wolf recovery.
- Scenario 4: Local wolf management committee. Turn wolf recovery management over to individual states and limit federal government involvement.
- Scenario 5: Reintroduction of non-experimental wolves.* By designating the wolves as “non-experimental” they are given much more protection.
*Note: The classifications of Scenario 1 as “experimental” and Scenario 5 as “non-experimental” are used in the Endangered Species Act of 1973. They help define how endangered or threatened species are managed in the United States.
Continuing in the role of the 1994 USFWS teams, you will do what they did - examine the feasibility of each scenario by charting pros and cons. As you do this, take into account citizen perspectives and the impacts on ecosystem services each scenario might have. Also consider any social, scientific, and economic constraints (limitations) for each scenario. Your USFWS team can modify scenarios to address any constraints or to increase support of ecosystem services.
- Read and discuss the pros and cons for each scenario on the handout Wolf Reintroduction Scenarios Pro and Con Chart.
- Highlight or underline the main points arguing for (pro) and against (con) each scenario.
- Review the citizen statements and predict which scenario each would most likely support.
- Create a separate table or matrix that summarizes citizen support for each scenario. You could include the name of the citizen role and a statement explaining why you think the role would support the scenario.
What was the impact of their decision?
Think about the different wolf reintroduction scenarios you compared in the last section. The reintroduction scenario that was ultimately selected was #1, with a few modifications based on public comments. What were the impacts of this decision?
Watch the full video of Wolves of Yellowstone | EARTH A New Wild. Watch the second half (2:39 minutes- end) several times to catch all the ecosystem connections described.
- How have wolves impacted ecosystem services in Yellowstone?
- How have wolves affected the local economy?
- What has happened to other living organisms and nonliving parts of the ecosystem after reintroducing wolves? Create a second bubble concept map that shows these changes in the ecosystem. Start with a central bubble of “Wolves Reintroduced.” You can used this handout to record your answers.
Revisit Trophic Cascades
How much ecosystem change can be attributed to the wolves’ return?
The following video has been instrumental in helping the public understand the significant impact an animal like the wolf can have on its ecosystem.
- Watch the video with a critical lens for accuracy based on what you’ve learned on this Quest.
- Read the essay, "Scientists Debate: Do Wolves Change Rivers?" which summarizes current research on the relationship between the wolves’ return and a trophic cascade.
- Complete Points to Ponder.