How the reintroduction of wolves has changed Yellowstone National Park

In the history of Yellowstone NP, wolves have gone from public enemy to becoming a major draw for visitors. But even with legions of wolf spotters, the fight to keep them alive isn’t over

2 mins

Yellowstone is known for being home to iconic wildlife such as bison and grizzly bears. But if there is one animal that has become synonymous with the park and its conservation legacy, it is the grey wolf.

That wasn’t always the case. When Yellowstone National Park was created in 1872, wolf numbers were already in decline across the American West and they were afforded no protection. In fact, when the National Park Service was originally formed in 1916, its rangers actively shot wolves because they were deemed undesirable. Barely a decade later, the last native wolf was killed in Yellowstone.

The best chance of seeing wolves is in winter (Shutterstock)

The best chance of seeing wolves is in winter (Shutterstock)

Times change, though. Wolves were reintroduced into the park in 1995, where they are now protected. They have since been credited with rebalancing its ecosystem, keeping elk numbers in check and reversing the effects of overgrazing. But despite proof that wolves encourage a wide range of flora and fauna to flourish, Nathan Varley of Yellowstone Wolf Tracker says not all attitudes have changed.

“Wolves are still lightning rods for controversy,” he explains. “I feel like very little of it has gone away since their reintroduction.”

Yellowstone Wolf Tracker was a pioneer in offering wolf-watching tours in the park. Now those same wolves are acknowledged as a major draw. Sadly, however, when it comes to what happens outside the protection of Yellowstone, attitudes are still stuck in the past.

“They’re a huge attraction, a big part of our economy,” says Nathan. “But a lot of people don’t realise the wolves they’re coming to see are under siege. Yellowstone is a refuge, but if the wolves leave the park they have a high likelihood of dying by hunting or trapping. By allowing this, the state authorities are killing the goose that lays the golden egg.”

You can’t stop wild wolves roaming, so what’s the solution? “We want to see that message get out there,” says Nathan, “to put more pressure on the states from visitors urging them to do the right thing.”

Wolves have been successfully reintroduced, but still under threat (Shutterstock)

Wolves have been successfully reintroduced, but still under threat (Shutterstock)

A big part of that is wrapped up in the wolf-tracking tours. Seeing a Yellowstone wolf remains on the bucket list of most visitors, though you will need to set your alarm. Nathan’s tours leave pre-dawn and last six to eight hours. They don’t guarantee a sighting, but the success rate is about 90% in winter (slightly less in summer), when you also have a better chance of hearing wolves howl. And the more people who see and understand these animals, the better chance they have.

The popularity of wolves ensures that when they are killed outside the park – 25 were shot this hunting season; about 20% of Yellowstone’s entire population – then it isn’t brushed over. Keeping wolves in the public eye is part of the battle, and Nathan is optimistic that his voice and those of his supporters are being heard. “But there is work to be done,” he admits. Ensuring that Yellowstone’s wolves don’t disappear isn’t just a job for the park this time, it may take all of us.

For more information on wolf tours, visit

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