In 1995, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began an experimental program to reintroduce wolves to Yellowstone National Park. If the program is successful, the park (which had seen the gray wolf eradicated by the 1920s) will become home to a thriving wolf population and the Yellowstone gray wolf can be removed from the federal endangered species list.

So far, the plan is moving toward this goal. The wolves are breeding and their migration beyond park boundaries—a special concern of hunters and ranchers—has been minor. In the program’s first twelve months, writes one wolf advocate, only “four wolves were killed and only two sheep and one dog were killed by wolves—far lower numbers than some feared. Puppies were born to two of the Yellowstone wolf packs, and for the most part, the wolves stayed on the public lands surrounding Yellowstone.” Who could oppose a scene so worthy of Walt Disney?

Nevertheless, wolf recovery, especially the agency’s proposals for other parts of the northern Rockies, remains highly controversial. Critics, including a growing number of conservationists, charge that wolf recovery could endanger other wildlife and livestock in the region. Wolf advocates, however, argue that the wolf is simply the victim of bad press based on old fashion prejudices. The science of wolf populations, they say, suggests that wolf recovery poses no significant threat to other animal populations.

Endangered Wolves, Endangered Science

In Wolf Recovery, Political Ecology, and Endangered Species, wildlife ecologist Charles Kay, who has conducted field studies in the Rockies for more than 20 years, concurs that science is not well-served in the “wolf wars.” Kay describes an emotionally charged debate in which subterfuge has often obscured science. However, because wolf advocates claim that science supports their cause, it is they whom Kay takes to task. In their quest to win public support for a larger wolf recovery program, Kay states, “the federal government and other wolf advocates have taken liberties with the truth, with science, and with the Endangered Species Act.”

“I am committed neither to having wolves in the West nor to keeping them out,” he adds. “I am committed, though, to science used responsibly in policy debates, something I have not yet seen with wolf recovery.”

Kay also argues that wolf advocates myopically neglect the fact that sound conservation requires facing inevitable trade-offs among alternative environmental values. Wolf recovery in Canada, for example, by reducing game hunting, reduced public support for habitat preservation. Consequently, although Canada now has an estimated 60,000 wolves, less land is available to support other fauna and flora. Conservationists, Kay argues, must be wary of putting so much weight on one environmental value that more important ones become threatened.

The Political Ecology of Wolf Recovery

Kay charges that environmental politics has clouded even the key issue of the number of wolves needed to sustain wolf recovery. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other wolf advocates maintain that 300 wolves in parts of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming (including 100 in Yellowstone) would yield a population large enough to warrant removing the gray wolf from the endangered species list. However, Kay’s inquiry under the Freedom of Information Act revealed that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had failed to conduct or review the appropriate studies.

According to published studies on minimum viable population size, a population of far more than 300 wolves would be needed to delist the wolf under the current Endangered Species Act. Kay estimates that a more realistic number of wolves, one with sufficient genetic diversity, is 1500 to 2000. But because wolves can reproduce quickly and disperse widely (by more than 200 miles), a seed population in this range would soon repopulate the entire northern Rockies.

Wolf advocates probably know this fact, Kay argues, but fear that discussing realistic numbers would mobilize effective political opposition from ranchers and hunters, who fear that wolf recovery would hamper their livelihoods and hobbies. However, by beginning with a small but politically acceptable wolf recovery program—easily popularized by photogenic wolf pups—wolf advocates might gain enough support to overcome resistance to a larger program.

More Wolves = Fewer Deer = Fewer Trees

What impact would wolf recovery have on other animals? Although wolves were commonly thought to limit the number of deer, elk and other ungulate prey, another view gained currency in the 1950s and 1960s. This view held that ungulate populations were limited not by predators but by food supply. Wolf predation merely ensured a plentiful food supply for the remaining ungulates, allowing more of them to breed. Predation was seen as putting a floor on the number of ungulates, rather than a ceiling.

New evidence from the late 1980s and 1990s does not support this theory, however. Wolf and bear predation are much more significant constraints on ungulate populations than previously thought; a greater food supply per ungulate does not compensate for predation. The relationship between wolf and ungulate populations is one of conflict, not symbiosis.

Moreover, wolves prey disproportionately on young, old and male ungulates. In one Minnesota study, over 70 percent of the white-tailed deer killed by wolves were males, primarily older males, the type most prized by game hunters. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has stated that if wolf populations overwhelm big game herds, it will allow wolf control.

However, given environmentalists’ successful campaign against wolf control in Alaska and Canada, wolf control in the northern Rockies is exceedingly unlikely, Kay argues.

Why should environmentalists care about the quality of hunting? Because many hunters are keenly aware that overhunting and pollution can threaten their sport, the hunting community is an important supporter of conservationist causes. But sport hunters’ support for conservation depends greatly on their freedom to hunt. In British Columbia and Alaska’s coastal forests, where wolf recovery significantly diminished ungulate populations available for hunting, the population of hunters also diminished, and environmentalists lost an important ally. Consequently, public resistance to the clear cutting of forests waned and habitat protection lost political support. Summarizes Kay: “More wolves = fewer deer = less public support for wildlife = more clear-cuts.”

The Failure of the Endangered Species Act

Unfortunately, such myopia is shared by proponents of other endangered species programs. State and federal agencies spend $100 million annually to protect endangered species, but over one-half of that total goes to less than 2 percent of the species listed as threatened or endangered. Instead of spending its budget on the animals and plants most in need of protection, the agencies spend taxpayer funds on “charismatic megafauna” such as grizzly bears and wolves, which serve the interests of the agencies better.

This should come as no surprise, Kay argues. If endangered species have been poorly served, it is largely because our public institutions have come to serve the private agendas of special-interest groups, including environmental bureaucrats. Conservationists failed to recognize this risk when they championed the bureaucratic, command-and-control approach implicit in the Endangered Species Act.

Sensible reform is therefore unlikely to occur unless conservationists come to understand better the trappings of political ecology, the complex web of relationships—some symbiotic, some parasitic—among politicians, bureaucrats, interest groups and the public. In this cause, Kay concludes, everyone professing concern for sound environmental stewardship must recognize that science and honest debate can only be allies.