Presently, there are between 600 and 800 bears and over 1500 wolves in the Greater Yellowstone region. The populations of grizzly bears and wolves are doing fine and very likely, both species will continue to thrive and expand their presence.  Politically, the wolf continues to elicit strong feelings of resentment from those in the traditionally conservative agricultural, ranching, and hunting communities who see wolves on the landscape as a form of public or regulatory takings. Supporters continue to express feelings of great admiration for the wolf both as a majestic animal and as a symbol of wild land. Supporters typically fall at the other end of the political spectrum and see the reintroduction as an important public good. For the pro-wolf crowd the success of the reintroduction is a symbol of conservation success in general. Those who are anti-wolf see government overreach. Meanwhile, the grizzly bear is generally accepted as an occasional problem neighbor but with almost no antipathy toward the animal itself. The difference in public perception may be found in the institutions that developed during their recovery.

First, and most obvious, the bear was never completely gone from the region; the wolf was. Bear management was always grounded in the science of recovery rather than the contentious political decision to reintroduce. The distinction is important. Humans in the region had continued experience with bears. One would infrequently see them or their tracks. Hunters would occasionally encounter them and sometimes they ventured into gateway communities to rummage through garbage. People in the region knew something of their habits and behaviors.

6.1 wolfintroductioncriminaThis poster for an anti-wolf talk is an effective framing tool. The speaker is a retired USFWS employee and so brings with him institutional credibility. Because so few people have direct experience with wolves but carry personal bias, advocacy groups can easily shape the conversation. The last wolf in the Greater Yellowstone was killed in May 1943. By the time reintroduction efforts began in earnest almost fifty years later there were few people in the region who had experienced living with the wolf so no frame of reference existed. Like other wicked problems, myth and narrative about wolves frequently trumps science and rationality. For both sides the narrative was a blank slate upon which political statements took on the appearance of fact.

For the most part, the bureaucratic structure for bear management successfully avoids political controversy. Agency behavior at the federal and state level toward the bears has been aimed at mitigating human/bear conflicts and in reducing the mortality to each. A comprehensive science agenda was designed with the intent of knowing and understanding the habitat needs and feeding strategies, as well as bear behavior. Dozens of papers were published and, in the end, managers have a solid set of facts they use to manage bears and people. Technological fixes such as bear-proof garbage storage containers, the use of nonlethal deterrents – dogs, fireworks, rubber bullets, bear spray and, education programs helped minimize conflicts. These efforts are largely apolitical in nature. Most require little in terms of financial outlay or social cost. And they work.


It could be that the lowly bear proof garbage can is responsible for saving more grizzly bears than any other management solution. When bear recovery was in full swing researchers noted that after the dumps were closed, human/bear conflicts were on the rise in nearby gateway communities and in park campgrounds. These because “population sinks” for bears. Most of these incidents were the result of garbage-habituated bears looking for a meal.

Bears will travel long distances back to where they knew they can get a snack. This often resulted in a decision to relocate the bear or sometimes killing it. The problem was particularly acute when food supplies were scarce or there were cubs to feed. Management controls, a euphemism for dealing with problem bears, accounted for many deaths to bears up through the mid 1980s. After that, cultural change took place among managers that aimed at preventing encounters rather than dealing with them after the fact.

DSC01821Bear-proof garbage bins (Jerry Johnson photo)When faced with the problem, Superintendent Bob Barbee embarked on a new approach – design and use bear proof garbage containers. The logic was, if bears were not rewarded with food, they would quit looking. The park service worked on multiple designs for public and private garbage containers as well as dumpsters. Park policy replaced all the containers and convinced the gateway communities to do the same.

The number of bear-human conflicts as well as the number of bear management control actions declined significantly. During the first years of these reforms, most bear-human conflicts involved food-conditioned bears that aggressively sought human foods. In more recent years, management problems have involved habituated (but not food-conditioned) bears seeking natural foods within developed areas and along roadsides where they are hit by cars or pose a potential conflict when surrounded by large groups of tourists in Yellowstone's legendary "bear jams". 

Lethal controls and relocation are slightly more political than other methods – especially when a bear is destroyed, but these measures are mostly reactive to “problem bears”. This is not to say political controversy does not exist for bear managers but, when issues arise they seek to manage it with quality scientific data and an administrative focus on mortality control.

Journalist Scott McMillion has covered most resource issues in his thirty-year career. His book Mark of the Grizzly looks for lessons from bear attacks. He is a keen observer of how our opinions of bears have changed.

Wolf reintroduction was, from the start, fraught with political conflict. The social perception of the wolf is inherently more polarized than that of the grizzly and the institutions reflect that polarization. Operation Wolfstock, the name given the process of bringing wolves back to Yellowstone, was inherently tied to the anti-establishment concert of 1969 and the politics of idealism. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt signed the Record of Decision for the final environmental impact statement on June 15, 1994. This was the formal start of the process for the FWS to write and publish the rules under which reintroduction would take place. By January 1995, several entities opposed to reintroduction filed for an injunction to stop the process but were denied in Wyoming U.S. District Court. Even the Park Service term for the reintroduction can be seen as political. Their term – Wolf Restoration, implies renewal of a broken ecosystem, something many wolf opponents disagree with.

The process of physically bringing wolves back was run like a high profile military operation. The Incident Commander oversaw the process from capture of wild wolves in Alberta and British Columbia and eventual transport to “soft release” enclosures within the park. The Operation Section included a media liaison, public education officer, a manager for the collaring and monitoring of each wolf, wolf care specialists, the transport coordinator, and many other functions deemed necessary for a successful program. By January 11 the first shipment of 12 wolves was on its way to Great Falls, Montana to clear customs and on to Gardiner, MT at the north entrance to the park.  From there they were transported by pickup and horse drawn sled to the Crystal Creek enclosure in the Lamar Valley. In front of an army of media, the first transport boxes were personally carried to the acclimation pen by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior Babbitt and the Director of the USFWS Beattie and Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Mike Finley. The drama had began earlier though.

On the same day the wolves arrived in Great Falls, the Wyoming Farm Bureau had asked for an immediate injunction to stay the release. A judge of the Federal Appellate court in Denver, Colorado, placed a 48-hour "stay" on the releases to allow him time to study the motion. The wolves sat in their boxes and again the national media had a compelling wolf story. Both the American and Canadian national news networks aired an interview with Interior Secretary Babbitt in which he warned that the wolves could die inside their shipping containers because the boxes were not designed for prolonged holding. Animal welfare groups in both the U.S. and Canada threatened to bring charges of animal cruelty against the U.S. government. In response, the USFWS filed an emergency request for reconsideration of the stay, citing the welfare of the wolves. On Janurary 12 at 6:00 p.m. the judge relented and allowed the release of the wolves to their new temporary home. A second group of wolves arrived on January 19. On March 21, 1995, 69 days after their arrival, the acclimation pens were opened and the now named “Crystal Creek” pack was released into the wild. In the end, In total, 31 wolves were introduced to the Greater Yellowstone, central Idaho, and northwest Montana between 1995-1996. The wolves in the Lamar Valley would go on to establish the Crystal and Rose Creek packs. By December 1996, the GYE population had grown to 376 individuals in 31 breeding pairs.

15118Release of wolves in Yellowstone. (NPS photo)The legal battle over reintroduction is instructive and hinged on ecological science and the interpretation of the ESA itself. The two lawsuits (known as Babbitt 1 & 2 respectively) consist of Wyoming Farm Bureau Fed'n v. Babbitt, 987 F.Supp. 1349, 1372-76 (D.Wyo.1997) and the appeal - Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation v. Babbitt, 199 F. 3d 1224 - Court of Appeals, 10th Circuit 2000. Here are the facts.

The Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation, on behalf of its rancher members, asserted eleven claims for relief (one they later dropped). For our purposes we can summarize it into two main sets. Complaint 6 argued that the FWS failed to consult with affected landowners; complaint 7 argued that FWS actions violated plaintiffs' right to meaningfully comment on the proposed rules pursuant to the Administrative Procedures Act; complaint 10 argued that (a) plaintiffs were not provided an opportunity to comment; (b) defendants did not consider the plaintiffs' comments; and (c) defendants did not to respond to the comments submitted by plaintiffs. The court found these issues to be without merit.

Contrary to the Farm Bureaus' contentions, the court found that the FWS did "consult" with affected private landowners, as well as many members of the public, in developing the reintroduction rules. In fact, during the 32 months of public input on the EIS (the law requires only 90 days), over 130 public meetings were held, about 750,000 EIS documents distributed, and over 170,000 comments were submitted by the public. Comments were received from every state in the U.S. and from more than 40 countries. In addition, 53 scientists who had worked with wild wolves were consulted. Further, when the final rules were drafted, the court found that many plaintiff’s comments were incorporated into the substance of the final rules including those that allowed landowners to harass and kill wolves preying on private livestock.

The substance of the cases hinged, in part, on whether the introduction of the Canadian wolves (as an experimental population) represented a different species of wolf and if that new population impacted “native” wolves. Complaint 2 alleged the FWS failed to introduce the experimental population outside the current range of the species in violation of section 10(j) of the ESA. Complaint 3 argued the FWS introduced an experimental population that is not "wholly separate geographically" from nonexperimental (i.e. native) wolf populations in violation of section 10(j)(2) of the ESA.

Much of the debate is centered on what biologists knew about the resident wolf population – if there was one. As explained above an exhaustive three-year effort at finding wolves produced no results. There were no residents breeding pairs of wolves in the Greater Yellowstone. However, there were reports by some that wolves did live in the region if only temporarily and that given time, a population of wolves from northern Montana and Canada would likely establish itself. If there was the possibility of wolves in the region and the FWS could not keep the experimental population in Yellowstone from interacting with the natural populations in Wyoming and Montana, it would violate section 10(j) of the Endangered Species Act. The court agreed and ordered on December 12, 1997 (two years after the wolves were released) that establishing a nonessential experimental population of gray wolves in Yellowstone violated the ESA, the FWS must remove reintroduced non-native wolves and their offspring from the Yellowstone and central Idaho experimental population areas and, that the judgment would be stayed pending appeal by FWS. Meanwhile, the reintroduction efforts continued and wolves began breeding.

The appeal of Babbitt 1 by the Fish and Wildlife Service was overturned in the 10th Circuit on January 13, 2000 (Babbitt 2). This time the court (reluctantly) found no evidence that there was a current range of the species in the introduction area and so stayed the order to prevent reintroduction. At this point of course the decision was moot because it would be logistically impossible to round up the entire wolf population and besides, the political uproar would resonate nationally.

There were other unusual features of the Farm Bureau case.

Oddly, the argument against reintroduction by some conservation organizations hinged on the same argument Farm Bureau used, although likely for very different reasons. Whereas the Farm Bureau sought to prevent an establishment of a resident wolf population, the National Audubon Society and their co-signers disliked the lack of ESA protection of any possible wolf in-migrants (that the court said did not exist). When the case went forward on appeal most conservation groups dropped their role and joined the FWS.

The other peculiar feature involved plaintiffs James and Cat Urbigkits, residents of Pinedale, Wyoming and hosts of the web site: Wolf Watch. The Urbigkits are amateur researchers, who apparently had been searching for, studying, and reporting on naturally occurring wolves in the Yellowstone and Wyoming areas since 1988 on a recreational basis. They argue that the so-called “Canadian wolves” were so different from Yellowstone wolves as to constitute a distinct subspecies and so threaten their recreational pursuits with respect to the “native Yellowstone wolf”. In essence, they claimed to be an “injured party”, and so had standing in court, when the status of wolves changed. In reality their position was a sideshow to the larger question of interpreting the ESA but it does show that when ostensibly pro-wolf parties join with anti-wolf advocates sometime politics results in strange alliances.

Each state within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem issued statements of condemnation of the effort. A Wyoming state legislative committee approved a bill that placed a $500 bounty on any wolf that strayed from the park. Idaho Governor "Butch" Otter called the reintroduction a state emergency. The distant state of Colorado considered a bill requiring state permission if reintroduction was tried there; U.S. Representative Don Young (R-AK) held oversight hearings in Washington D.C. on the reintroduction efforts.

The Park Service did an outstanding job building institutional structures for the reintroduction effort. Well known wolf biologists were involved at every stage; radio collars were placed on each wolf; the public was educated and kept abreast of progress. Wolves became media stars. President Clinton and the first family visited one of the release sites in August. Private contributions to support the effort were encouraged and accepted. The Yellowstone Wolf Project Report is the National Park Service's report on wolves in the park and is a quality source of news and science for the program. Multitudes of pro-wolf nonprofit and for profit sites exist on the Internet. Every major network in the U.S. and many from abroad have broadcast films and news stories on the Yellowstone wolves.

Perhaps the most effective political strategy designed by the Park has been the creation of the position of Biological Technician for the Yellowstone Wolf Project. The original and only owner of that position is Rick McIntyre. His job, in part supported by the Yellowstone Park Foundation, is to make daily observations that he contributes to the scientific body of knowledge that now exists on wolves, and to share what he knows with Park visitors. Rick meets with a steady stream of visitors, assists them in spotting wolves, and explains wolf ecology and behavior. In the first season wolves were released, he spoke to over 40,000 park visitors about the project and wolf ecology.  

Unfortunately, the high profile of the reintroduction effort was also a convenient target for those who opposed the effort. The most vocal opponents included the agricultural community who run livestock near the park boundary and property right advocates who saw the reintroduction as yet another conspiracy to move publicly subsidized ranchers off public lands. In this respect, wolves serve as a values proxy across the political spectrum. Perhaps there is nothing the Park Service and FWS could have done that would have placated opponents.  It seems true however that in the rush to pursue reintroduction some in the agricultural community felt slighted. The Clinton administration had lost control of Congress in the recent off year elections and Superintendent Mike Finley and Bruce Babbitt likely understood they had a narrow window of opportunity. During this sense of urgency the personal relationships that could have been developed regionally suffered.

Public lands in the Rocky Mountain west are often open to private business activities such as mining, grazing, and for profit recreation such as hunting and backcountry outfitting. Roughly, 2.5 million public acres are available for commercial grazing of cattle and sheep; this augments the 107 million acres of private land grazing in the region. It was believed that as wolves left the park, they would inevitably prey on domesticated livestock. In the intervening years however, wolf predation has accounted for relatively few livestock deaths but each one is political fodder for anti-wolf groups. On rare occasions wolves will attack entire flocks of sheep and the results can be devastating for that particular rancher. The more important consideration for most ranchers is their ability to manage problem wolves on their private land and public leases. In Wyoming, the wolf is considered a predator in most of the state and can be shot on sight. Montana and Idaho have yet to adopt a similar position although all three states have liberal hunting seasons on wolves.

Associated with public land grazing is a perception by some that wolves on public land will preclude other activities – notably recreational hunting. Wolves on the landscape have changed the behavior of elk and certainly made them more difficult to hunt in some cases but reintroduction has not stopped hunting in the region.  State game management agencies kept elk herds artificially high as favored by hunting interests; when reintroduction took place, elk were at thier historical maximum in the region. In the original environmental impact statement on reintroduction, the FWS predicted a 5%-30% decline in the number of elk. By 2007, enough data was in to indicate a decline in the elk population in the neighborhood of 37%-60%. This number can be misleading however and in fact, in many hunting districts near the park elk numbers are above the preferred management goal.

Elk, like other animals, are subject to both direct predation effects as well as “risk effects”. Wolves certainly kill elk but other factors also contribute to elk mortality. Weather, drought, nutrition, habitat, and behavioral changes – some due to predation, some not, are part of the complexity of large ecosystems. Unfortunately, sometimes public agencies and nonprofits fail to understand or chose to misrepresent those ecological realities.

Did Wolves Change the Yellowstone Ecosystem?

Trophic cascades. The phrase can elicit either overwhelming support or derision among scientists working in Yellowstone. A trophic cascade is where the behavior of an animal (predator) on another (prey) causes a “trickle down” effect on the plants eaten by the prey species. The result is a change in plant life, makeup, etc. Such cascades are widely recognized as important processes of top-down control of food web dynamics.

A behaviorally mediated trophic cascade (BMTC) is a condition where, for example, predators prey on herbivores, thereby decreasing their population and so impact plant life. In this instance, the cascade is due to indirect behavioral-level effects, in which herbivore prey shift their foraging behavior in response to predation risk. Such behavioral shifts can result in reduced feeding time and increased starvation risk or, they could change their herding behavior and so breeding outcomes. In any case, the impact on plants might be similar. The question was: are wolves causing a behaviorally mediated trophic cascade in elk?

When wolves were reintroduced to the park some areas were observed to have fewer beavers than before. The suspected problem was that too many elk had overgrazed the aspen and willow in riparian areas close to creeks thereby denying habitat to beavers, songbirds, etc. Elk felt safe to graze in the open because of the lack of wolves. After wolves established themselves a team of researchers at the University of Oregon saw changes in the growth of aspens and an increase in residents of the riparian zone. The scientists referred to the return to balance as "the ecology of fear." Others took to the field to test the theory and found little evidence that BMTC released aspen from elk browsing pressure. In other words, aspen didn’t respond to the hypothesized fine-scale risk factors in ways consistent with the current BMTC hypothesis. Some see the trophic cascade hypothesis it as a near perfect “just so” story and so use it to advocate for the wolf. Others think there is more to the ecology of wolves and that the cascade effect is being used to oversimplify ecosystem management of a highly complex landscape.

The debate went mainstream when this highly dramatized video went viral with over 19,000,000 hits and again, the narrative as defined by wolf advocates helps fuel the continued political debate.

Read more from researchers at: Colorado State University, Montana State University, University of Oregon

Symbolism and framing is important here as it is in most cases of a wicked problem. Early on the wolf took on the persona of the embodiment of nature in all its forms, and is still depicted as such by many wolf supporters. Pro wolf advocates insist reintroduction simply restored the ecosystem to its former condition. They often point to regional and national polls that show respondents favored reintroduction 3 to 1. Those who favor wolves on the landscape present them as a symbol of wild places, ecological harmony, and even as a regional political entity. They depict the wolf as the intelligent social animal it is.  For these supporters wolves help bring nature into balance and the effect on humans is often a secondary concern. Conversely, wolves are also presented by some as unwelcome interlopers who have moved into our neighborhoods threatening our property and personal safety. They roam in packs and kill indiscriminately - especially the elk that locals hunt and outfitters depend on for their livelihood. Interestingly, for all the danger wolves symbolize, they are rarely implicated in conflicts with humans.

Bears are also depicted as symbols of wildness and empty spaces but usually as solitary inhabitants of unpopulated lands; they are often photographed alone or with cubs in the high country grazing on grass or insects. The fact that they occasionally attack and kill humans is because we chose to visit their space – not the other way around. The most radical trend in bear management in recent years is that fewer bears are killed after an attack on a human. More often than not the victim asks the bear to be left alone and management complies.

Those less supportive of wolves make a nuanced political argument. Wolves, they argue, threaten property rights when they cross over onto private land and kill livestock and even pets – sometimes viciously so. The inability of the landowner to easily control the trespassing wolf, because of ESA restrictions, is a usurpation of private property rights. In some ways, the position is difficult to refute. The rancher or rural resident often lives in wolf habitat and so incurs the direct costs of hosting wolves as neighbors. Early on in the reintroduction effort the Yellowstone wolves, and other regional populations, were designated as a nonessential experimental population under section 10(j) and so landowners received section 4(d) consideration. However, many ranchers felt that the rules that govern their ability to manage problem wolves were still overly burdensome and inflexible. The problem was is that few of these conflicts were worked out in advance of the reintroduction effort.

The reality is that both wolves and bears range from high wilderness where they encounter few people to lowland agricultural lands as they roam seasonally foraging for all manner of protein. Neither species is inherently violent toward humans and most encounters end in wonder and curiosity. Wolves are not bloodthirsty invaders of our space and bears are not defending their habitat against us. Both animals simply exist on the land, follow the food supply and mostly ignore humans.

In reality, the anti-wolf position is a proxy battle for the perceived “war on the west” that has raged since the sagebrush rebellion of the 1970s and the wise use movement that followed. The controversy is one grounded in state vs. federal control over public lands and resources and wolf reintroduction efforts are simply the latest incarnation of the struggle to recover the commodity economy of the west. If opposition to wolves is really an issue of regional sovereignty, continued institutional behavior that sets two groups of citizens against each other will not alleviate the problem. The problem of public land management is larger than a single species.

The difference between social perceptions of the grizzly bear and the grey wolf is grounded in biology and institutional tactics. Bears are fewer in number and so draw less of our attention. Bears live mostly solitary lives; wolves run and hunt in packs and are often observed during the day when most bears are sleeping. The bear’s diet is broad and seasonal; they rarely kill for food. Wolves are meat eaters and must kill to survive. Wolf success rate is somewhere between four and eight percent so they act opportunistically when they can and will kill prey en mass; bears forage and scavenge. Wolves are particularly well-adapted to hunting in winter and if prey is in the lower elevation valleys, we may see them hunt on a regular basis. Bears are in hibernation during the winter months and so do not inhabit our consciousness for much of the year. These differences help explain why wolves are often described as “cold blooded killers” when bears, even when they attack humans, are depicted as “bears being bears”.

The institutional structure and culture that developed around the two animal conservation programs share similar differences. During the recovery phase, bear management agencies sought to “fly below the public radar” and did not seek out publicity or media attention; they still don’t. The park service raised public awareness about the reintroduction of wolves to the level of a national media event feeding frenzy. Both groups of managers are grounded in quality science but wolf science has a very public face and federal agencies continue to draw attention to the success of the effort. It could be argued that wolf reintroduction would not have been possible without the high profile political effort conducted by the park service and FWS. It could also be argued that now that wolves are here, it may be time to seek to depoliticize the wolf through the use of institutions that place an emphasis on species maintenance and active management rather than a continued presence in the media attention cycle. This would likely include more killing of problem wolves.


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