The costs of wolf reintroduction will be dwarfed by the benefits, economic and ecological, that Coloradans stand to enjoy.
A look back to 1995, when wolves were reintroduced to the Yellowstone ecosystem, offers perspective. In 1998, Ed Bangs reported in Status of Gray Wolf Restoration in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming that “Wolf recovery in the northern Rocky Mountains from 1973 until 1998 has cost a total of $10,225,000.”
So, what did we get for our 16-year investment?
We didn’t see reductions in elk numbers. Since 1995, when 31 wolves were transported to Yellowstone and 37 to central Idaho, elk numbers have increased. Idaho had 103,448 elk in 1995, but by 2018, the population had grown to 110,300. Montana had 109,500 elk in 1995, which increased to 139,470 in 2018 and 141,785 by 2021.
Outfitters found that wolves and numerous other factors, including changes of property ownership, caused elk to shift their habitat use patterns. There also was no decrease in hunter success in these states, even as the wolf population grew from zero to several thousand, according to state wildlife agencies. The fairy-tale narrative that bringing back the wolf would somehow reduce elk populations, or hunter success, turned out to be entirely false.
Last year, these results were corroborated by a new study from Alberta, where decades-long aerial gunning targeting wolves was shown to yield no benefits for increasing moose populations or hunter success rates.
We also didn’t get major losses of livestock. Wolf reintroduction failed to cause major problems for the livestock industry in the states surrounding Yellowstone. Sampling cattle losses to wolves in the Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming counties that had both wolves and cattle, a 2015 study found 1,904 wolves, 1.6 million cattle — and a confirmed loss of only 148 cows to wolf predation. That amounts to a loss of less than 0.01% of cattle present. That same year, 8.37%, or 141,000, of these states’ cattle were lost to all causes. Ranchers received generous compensation for all confirmed losses due to wolves, and ranching is alive and well on the lands surrounding Yellowstone.
Meanwhile, these states implemented aggressive programs of lethal control, targeting wolves that were blamed for livestock losses. But these programs failed to reduce livestock losses, based on scientific analysis. In effect, wolf-killing programs were a colossal waste of taxpayer money.
In court to try to remove federal grizzly bear protections, the State of Montana claimed that predator-killing programs were necessary to attain “social tolerance” for large carnivores. But even after years of grizzly and wolf killings, state agencies and wildlife opponents in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming are more aggressive than ever at killing large carnivores. Meanwhile, the place with the greatest “social tolerance” for both wolves and grizzly bears is Yellowstone National Park, where killing either species is strictly prohibited.
The Yellowstone model fits right in with the ballot initiative, now state law, that Coloradans voters approved during the 2020 election. The law designates wolves as a “nongame species,” prohibiting sport hunting. And because the wolf management plan is required to be based on “the best available scientific data,” wolf-killing should not be authorized for either elk-population reasons or for reducing livestock losses. There simply is no credible scientific data to back up either management option.
Now let’s examine the economic benefits of wolves.
A 2008 study of Yellowstone National Park visitor attitudes estimated that 94,000 visitors from outside the three-state region came to the park specifically to see or hear wolves in 2005, and that they spent an average of $375 per person, or a total of $35.5 million annually in the three states surrounding the Park. In the 2020 book Yellowstone Wolves, Park Service lead wolf biologist Doug Smith and his co-authors wrote:
“Visitation to Yellowstone during 2005 was 2,835,651, but by 2017, park visits had risen 145% to 4,116,525. An estimate of the annual economic impact [of wolves], adjusted for 23% inflation over this period, is $65.5 million annually. Furthermore, wolf watchers help spread these economic benefits over time, as they visit outside the peak summer season and stay longer than most Yellowstone visitors.”
Because wolves prey selectively on the weak and sick, they also offer perhaps our best chance to cull the epidemic of chronic wasting disease out of Colorado’s mule deer and elk herds. This prion disease, like mad cow, has been shown to infect other species including monkeys. The close genetic relation of primates to humans means hunters and their families are at risk of debilitating and universally fatal brain disease.
So, to review, the cost of wolf reintroduction is small, while the economic benefits are large. Thirty years of experience in the Yellowstone ecosystem show definitively that the doomsday scenarios predicted by wolf opponents simply don’t materialize. Colorado has much to gain, and little to lose, by bringing wolves back as required by state law. Let’s get on with it, and craft a state wolf plan that’s based on sound science rather than anti-wolf hysteria.
Norm Bishop, of Bozeman, Mont., is a former park ranger at Yellowstone National Park and was the park’s chief interpreter of natural history and science from 1980 to 1997.
Note: In the 7th paragraph, the reference to a study been corrected to say it originated in Alberta, not in Alaska. The correction was made Feb. 7 at 5:33 p.m.
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