Return of the Wolves and Ecosystem Restoration

Angela Zahniser, Dr. Ashbindu Singh and Ali Salar Khawaja

We currently live in an era largely dominated by stories of environmental degradation and destruction. It is, therefore, both refreshing and exciting to observe the massive success of the gray wolf (Canis lupus) reintroduction to the United States’ Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone, established on 1 March 1872, became the world’s first national park when the US Congress “dedicated and set [it] apart as a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people” (NPS 2004). When a massive volcano erupted about 640,000 years ago and spewed across the western United States, Yellowstone was born. It has become home to the world’s largest number of geysers, including the infamous Old Faithful, which is evidence of one of the world’s largest active volcanoes. Yellowstone, world renowned for its natural beauty and pristine environment, is known for natural phenomenons such as geysers and hot springs, its abundance of wildlife, and unique geology. In October 1976, it was designated as an International Biosphere Reserve. Yellowstone National Park encompasses an area of 2.2 million acres (8,992 square kilometres) where 91% of the park stretches across northwest Wyoming, 7.6% across southern Montana, and 1.4% across eastern Idaho. After years of careful research and planning, the gray wolf reintroduction program was first implemented in 1995. Not only have the wolves survived and thrived, but evidence suggests they are playing a major role in restoring Yellowstone’s once-declining ecosystem. Since the re-introduction, scientists have been able to observe a rare opportunity-the natural adjustment of plant and animal species to a top-level predator in the food chain. Large predators help define the balance and abundance of all other species of an ecosystem. This is a basic ecological principle whose importance is often overlooked in a country where most large predators (except, of course, humans) have been systematically controlled and exterminated. Despite environmentalists’ and scientists’ overwhelming approval of the wolf reintroduction project, the operation is not without controversy-farmers and ranchers of the region have expressed their disapproval.

During the late 1800s, written accounts of wolf sightings in the Yellowstone/Idaho region were abundant. Yet as more and more settlers moved into the area, fear of livestock predation and human safety led to a human-induced decline in the wolf population. When the United States Congress authorized funding for the removal of all large predators from federal lands in 1914, wolves were subsequently poisoned, trapped, and shot until the last substantial packs were eliminated in the 1920s (Noecker 1997). Since then, the Yellowstone ecosystem has suffered drastic changes.

Without any predators to maintain its population, the elk population proliferated rapidly, nearly doubling in size to 20,000 head by the mid-1990’s. Elk learned to roam free without fear of predators, grazing in open fields and bushy areas. This population explosion led to a decline in deciduous woody species such as Populus tremuloides (Aspen), and species common to the Yellowstone’s riparian systems, such as Populus spp. (Cottonwoods) and Salix spp. (Willows) (Ripple and Beschta 2003).

Elk feed on the valley’s vegetation, leaving little food for beavers. Therefore, the elevated elk population also led to a decline in the region’s beaver population, which disappeared in the 1950s. The absence of beavers led to a decline in the number of area ponds, in turn decimating the succulent plant population. These succulent plants are a major food source for grizzly bears as they come out of hibernation. People started to notice these altered tree growth patterns by the 1990s. William Ripple, a botany professor at the Oregon State University, discovered that only two Aspen trees had begun to grow after the 1920s, which was also the same time the wolves disappeared (Robbins 2004). This chain of events, part of the web of life, began seventy years earlier through the disappearance of a single predator species, and affected the entire ecosystem structure of the park.

In 1978, following confusion concerning certain wolf species’ designation under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the Secretary of the Interior listed Minnesota’s wolves as threatened and all other North American gray wolf populations south of Canada as endangered. This listing helped pave the way for the eventual reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone. However, it took almost twenty years before an acceptable reintroduction plan was provided and the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) was approved. The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) appointed a team to develop a recovery plan for the eventual delisting of the gray wolf. The plan was approved in 1987 and set the condition that a recovery area has to maintain a minimum of ten breeding pairs for at least three successive years in order to be granted consideration for delisting.

In 1990, the United States Congress appointed a Wolf Management Committee to develop a plan for wolf restoration in the Park and ordered the preparation of an EIS (to be compiled jointly by the FWS, the National Park Service (NPS) and the US Forest Service) outlining a number of alternatives on wolf restoration. The final EIS was filed by the Secretary of the Interior in May, 1994. Five alternatives to the wolf reintroduction were considered. Finally, they agreed upon a plan to designate the released wolves as an “experimental population.” This meant that each wolf was to be treated as a threatened species and was therefore not protected under the Endangered Species Act if it left the boundaries of Yellowstone Park. This meant that local farmers and ranchers concerned about the reintroduction’s impact on their livestock were now legally allowed to "take care of" adult wolves that attacked their livestock.

Regardless of all the benefits of the wolf reintroduction, there were legitimate opponents to the plan. Local opposition centered mainly around ranchers, who were dutifully concerned about losing income from their livestock due to wolf predation. A statement in the final EIS states, “Very few people visiting Yellowstone Park would ever get to see a free-roaming wolf, while landowners and ranchers would be continually subjected to livestock losses and harassment by wolves” (FEIS 1994). At odds with this attitude were environmentalists, who believed the reintroduction necessary and had a tendency to demean the ranchers’ concerns. Hunters also feared that a significant decrease in the number of deer and elk would diminish their own chances for successful hunting. Another concern was human safety. With Yellowstone receiving so many tourists, there was a general fear of wolf attacks on humans, “Nobody has the right to endanger my life or my childrenׄs lives by introducing predators that kill for a living” (FEIS 1994).

Despite the outcries from local ranchers, hunters and other opponents, the wolf reintroduction moved forward. In a display of international cooperation in the name of wildlife preservation, fourteen wolves from several different packs in the Canadian provinces of British Colombia and Alberta were captured and transported. They were originally taken from Canada rather than from the US state of Montana because researchers thought it would be most optimal to introduce wolves who already knew how to hunt elk (their primary food source in Yellowstone, where elk from Montana mainly hunt deer). After spending several weeks in acclimation pens, fourteen Canadian gray wolves were transported by the NPS and the FWS and released into Yellowstone Park in the winter of 1995. The following year, seventeen more were transported from Canada, and ten additional pups from northwestern Montana were moved in. Mortality was less than half the expected rate, and the success surpassed all expectations. Some wolves were killed illegally, while others have died naturally, and some have been destroyed for repeatedly attacking livestock. Meanwhile, ranchers’ fears about wolves preying on livestock have proven to be largely unfounded. Although there have been occurrences, the wolves have, for the most part, chosen to prey on elk and deer, each pack killing an average of one a day. To diminish ranchers’ fears, Defenders of Wildlife, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting native wild animals and plants, established the Bailey Wildlife Foundation Compensation Trust fund in 1987, intended to compensate ranchers for loss of livestock due to wolf predation. There has been no livestock predation within Park boundaries; however, as of January 2004, in the public and private land area surrounding the park, called the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem Region, the fund has compensated ranchers 109 times with a total of US$150,539. There have been no documented cases of human attacks. Additionally, hunters are conceding that they have not seen any significant change in the amount of available game each season.

The wolf reintroduction has sparked dramatic changes within the Yellowstone’s ecosystem structure, increasing and enhancing the land’s biodiversity. The presence of wolves prompted a decline in elk population as well as a behavior change in grazing patterns. Since the elk can no longer openly graze without fear of attack, they have strategically moved to higher grazing grounds. Behavior indicates a preference for the more open country where elk have a panoramic view, allowing them to see prowling wolves. The impact of elks’ altered grazing patterns is seen in the increase of deciduous woody trees such as Populus deltoides (Cottonwood), Populus spp., and other Salix species. Indeed, Ripple and Beschta’s 2002 study indicates that young cottonwoods are growing tallest in areas where wolf predation risk is high (Ripple and Beschta 2003). Ripple examines cottonwoods in Yellowstone and expounds, “You can see that elk haven’t browsed it this year, didn’t browse it last year and, in fact, haven't browsed it since 1998” (Robbins 2004).

Some scientists, like Ripple, believe that the return of beavers to the area is due to the newly freed vegetation. Beavers, through the making of dams, help to change the course of water flow which, along with vegetative regrowth that curbs erosion, slows down water and causes it to pool. This, along with cooler waters due to shade from the newly grown trees, has sparked trout regeneration.

The return of the wolf to the Yellowstone Park has also meant a resurgence of available meat to other carnivores. Wolves-not grizzly bears, coyotes or mountain lions-are far and away the predominant predators of elk. The remaining carcasses then become food for many other scavengers. There has been an increase in the numbers of grizzly bears, magpies, ravens, and eagles in recent years. The number of coyotes, however, has declined since the wolves’ arrival, leading to the growth of rodent and mice populations. This in turn has given more food availability to red foxes (Robbins 2004).

As of July 2004, there are 33 packs of wolves (306 individual wolves) successfully living in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem Region (GYE), including 15 packs (170 individuals) living inside the Yellowstone Park’s boundaries (Smith 2004). This accounts for 306 individual wolves in the GYE and about 170 in the park boundaries. The wolf population has been stable since 2000. An angry attitude remains, however, among some local residents and ranchers in western Wyoming and eastern Idaho. The increase in the number of wolves alongside the increase in livestock kills has instigated several incidents of illegal poisoning. Eight dogs have been killed and thirteen others have become sick after eating poisoned hot dogs and balls of meat placed along roadsides in these areas. Authorities believe their intent was to kill roaming wolves. Tim Sundles, an ammunitions store owner in Idaho, asserts that “a whole lot of wolves” in the Yellowstone area were poisoned in the winter of 2003 (Gruver 2004). In Park County, Wyoming, citizens and ranchers still angered by the presence of wolves in their county are working feverishly to get the gray wolf delisted from the Endangered Species Act. In 2003, the Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it would consider a delisting if each of the three states where wolves are present (Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho) could present a management plan that would ensure the maintenance of the wolf population. When Wyoming submitted a plan that would dually classify wolves in northwest Wyoming as trophy game animals with strict protections and wolves in the rest of the state as predators that could be subject to hunting, the FWS rejected declassification, citing an unconvincing wolf management plan. According to the Associated Press, on June 15, 2004, the citizens of Park County, Wyoming served a 60-day notice of intent to sue the FWS for violations of the Endangered Species Act. Wyoming’s Attorney General had also already filed suit on April 22, stating that the FWS ignored science, exceeded its authority, and violated the US Federal Procedures Act (AP 2004).

This hotly debated issue will likely go on for some time before a resolution is reached. Ranchers and outfitters are deeply concerned and feel their livelihoods are in danger, while conservationists and scientists feel that this is a unique opportunity to study and document the numerous dramatic effects the reintroduction of one species can have upon an entire ecosystem. It is hopeful that ecologists, politicians, and the general public alike will analogise this occurrence to other ecosystems of the world, and realize how profoundly we as humans can and do affect our natural resources. The wolves of the Yellowstone National Park, as top predators in the food chain, have brought back into balance a delicate ecosystem that was once declining. Let this be a lesson for similar current and future situations that will most definitely arise around the world.


AP (2004). Wyoming Wants Gray Wolves Delisted, June 24, 2004. The Associated Press. (last accessed on 2 August, 2004).

FEIS (1994). The Reintroduction of Gray Wolves to Yellowstone National Park and Central Idaho Final Environmental Impact Statement. Sections 5-94 and 5-102.

Gruver, Mead (2004). Anger against wolf-reintroduction suspected in western U.S. dog poisonings, The Associated Press, June 8, 2004. (last accessed on 2 August, 2004).

Noecker, R. (1997). Congressional Research Service Report for Congress 97-747 ENR, August 1, 1997.
Redistributed as a service of the National Library for the Environment, made available through The National Council for Science and the Environment. (last accessed on 2 August, 2004).

NPS (2004). National Park Service, US Department of the Interior. Taken from the official Yellowstone web site. (last accessed on 3 August, 2004).

Ripple, W. and Beschta, R. (2003). Wolf reintroduction, predation risk, and cottonwood recovery in Yellowstone National Park, Elsevier Science, 2003. (last accessed on 2 August, 2004).

Robbins, Jim (2004). Scientific American , June 8 2004, Lessons from the Wolf. (last accessed on 2 August, 2004).

Smith, Doug (2004). From a personal conversation on July 30, 2004. Smith is a top wolf biologist and head of Yellowstone's Wolf Project.

Unhealthy Landscapes: Policy Recommendations on Land Use Change and Infectious Disease Emergence

Jonathan A. Patz, Peter Daszak, Gary M. Tabor, A. Alonso Aguirre, Mary Pearl, Jon Epstein, Nathan D. Wolfe, A. Marm Kilpatrick, Johannes Foufopoulos, David Molyneux, David J. Bradley, and Members of the Working Group on Land Use Change and Disease Emergence

Anthropogenic land use changes drive a range of infectious disease outbreaks and emergence events and modify the transmission of endemic infections. These drivers include agricultural encroachment, deforestation, road construction, dam building, irrigation, wetland modification, mining, the concentration or expansion of urban environments, coastal zone degradation, and other activities. These changes in turn cause a cascade of factors that exacerbate infectious disease emergence, such as forest fragmentation, disease introduction, pollution, poverty, and human migration. The Working Group on Land Use Change and Disease Emergence grew out of a special colloquium that convened international experts in infectious diseases, ecology, and environmental health to assess the current state of knowledge and to develop recommendations for addressing these environmental health challenges. The group established a systems model approach and priority lists of infectious diseases affected by ecologic degradation. Policy-relevant levels of the model include specific health risk factors, landscape or habitat change, and institutional (economic and behavioral) levels. The group recommended creating Centers of Excellence in Ecology and Health Research and Training, based at regional universities and/or research institutes with close links to the surrounding communities. The centers’ objectives would be 3-fold: a) to provide information to local communities about the links between environmental change and public health; b) to facilitate fully interdisciplinary research from a variety of natural, social, and health sciences and train professionals who can conduct interdisciplinary research; and c) to engage in science-based communication and assessment for policy making toward sustainable health and ecosystems. Key words: biodiversity, deforestation, ecosystems, emerging infectious diseases, land use, Lyme disease, malaria, urban sprawl, wildlife, zoonosis. Environ Health Perspect 112:1092–1098 (2004). doi:10.1289/ehp.6877 available via [Online 22 April 2004]. The full report is available at

Complementary Our Planet issues:
Women, Health and the Environment 2004
Water, Sanitation, People 2004
Poverty, Health and the Environment 2001


The ecosystem approach to human well-being

H.N.B.Gopalan, of UNEP’s Division of Policy Development and Law, examines the linkages between environmental well-being and human health, and introduces what UNEP and its partners are doing in the field of ‘ecohealth’, a new concept in tackling these issues. Download pdf is the world’s first internet service dedicated exclusively to ensuring that local governments around the world have full and free access to global expertise and experience in the fields of urban development and management. It is an initiative of Urbanicity Ltd, in partnership with the United Nations Habitat Best Practices and Local Leadership Programme. content includes an online magazine, City Matters, which contains many articles form leading opinion formers.

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The Environmental Significance of the Doha Declaration

 Steve Charnovitz

An agreement to launch new trade negotiations is itself significant for the environment. A failure at Doha would have pummeled the World Trade Organization (WTO) and undermined global governance. The WTO has now recovered from the institutional and political failure that occurred at Seattle in 1999. The trade ministers were undoubtedly inspired by the successful climate change talks concluded in Marrakesh on the opening day of the Doha conference. The Conference of the Parties to the Climate Change Convention made a recovery from the poor negotiating outcomes at The Hague in 2000 and in Bonn in July 2001.

The Doha Ministerial Declaration contains a large amount of language regarding the environment, far more than was predicted a week before the meeting. This language seems to have emanated from bargaining over other issues, but how it got there is less important than what it says.

Basically, there are two key environmental achievements. First, the Declaration designates environment as an agenda item in the new trade round. Second, the ministers are encouraging efforts to promote cooperation between the WTO, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), and other international environmental and development organizations. This may set in motion a WTO contribution to the World Summit on Sustainable Development, to be held next September in Johannesburg.

Green negotiations
The agreement to initiate negotiations on the environment in the new round opens the door in the WTO to better integration of trade and environmental objectives. The movement in this direction began at the trade ministerial conference in 1990 when the late Austrian Ambassador Winfried Lang catalyzed an effort to put environment on the agenda of the Uruguay Round. That this goal took over a decade to accomplish is exemplative of the challenges of making global governance more coherent.

The approved areas for negotiation are limited, but perhaps may be expandable as the new trade talks get underway. The governments agreed to negotiate the reduction of trade barriers to the sale of environmental goods and services, and to clarify and improve WTO disciplines as they pertain to fishing subsidies. The governments have also agreed to negotiate the relationship of WTO rules to the trade obligations in environmental treaties, but only the narrow issue of same-party membership in the WTO and the environmental treaty. Moreover, this negotiation must not add to or diminish the rights and obligations now in WTO agreements, so the exercise will be more about clarification than reconciliation.

The Ministers also directed the WTO Committee on Trade and Environment (CTE) to make recommendations on other issues that might benefit from negotiation. This responsibility had already been assigned to the CTE in 1994 as part of the carryover from the pre-WTO committee efforts. The fact that the CTE has failed to make policy recommendations over the past seven years does not augur well for its future productivity. The problem, as many analysts have noted, is that the CTE is too narrowly constituted to produce anything that adds value to the debate. The CTE needs the input of environmental officials and civil society. Although the CTE has had the advantage of some very good chairpersons and a high quality staff, it has not been able to overcome its inherent flaw of narrow composition.

This weakness in the current CTE structure will diminish the usefulness of Paragraph 51 of the Doha Declaration which directs the CTE and the Committee on Trade and Development to "act as a forum to identify and debate developmental and environmental aspects of the negotiations, in order to help achieve the objective of having sustainable development appropriately reflected." The fact that the trade ministers recognize that the new round needs such a forum and that negotiators should be working to reflect an environmentally sustainable outcome is a very important step forward for the WTO. The epistemic community working on trade and environment – which includes government officials, UNEP, many nongovernmental organizations in the North and South, a few business groups, and of course the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development (ICTSD) – will need to intensify efforts in the next three years to assist the WTO in thinking through the complex interactions.

Institutional cooperation
The Ministers have given a go-ahead for much-needed institutional cooperation between the WTO, UNEP, and other international environmental organizations, especially in the lead-up to the World Summit. Numerous beneficial activities could be undertaken. For example in the Doha Declaration, the Ministers “recognize the importance of technical assistance and capacity building in the field of trade and environment to developing countries, in particular the least-developed among them” (para. 33). Some constructive capacity building has already occurred, most notably by the UN Conference on Trade and Development, UN University, and ICTSD, but the levels delivered are far below what is being sought. The developing countries need assistance in securing new environmental technologies through trade, improving coordination within their own governments, and assessing the benefits of trade liberalization. The need for such capacity building will soon grow as governments and the private sector take actions pursuant to the

One possibility in that regard will be the new WTO negotiations on dispute settlement, which are slated to conclude by May 2003. The problem of how the WTO dispute settlement system should deal with environmental disputes is one that has bedeviled the WTO from the beginning. Almost all of the WTO panels hearing environmental or health disputes have availed themselves of scientific expertise, and the most recent decisions have been environmentally sound. But no progress has been made on providing a better interface between WTO dispute procedures and the dispute and arbitration systems that exist in environmental regimes.

In summary, the Doha Declaration provides a new beginning for the trade and environment debate. The trading system now looks at ecological issues in a more mature, less frightened, way that it did in the past. Environmentalists should support the new round and work hard to secure fair outcomes for developing countries.

Steve Charnovitz practices law at Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering in Washington, D.C. He was a founder of the Global Environment & Trade Study, which is co-located at Yale University and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

Article first published in Bridges, Year 5 No. 9, Nov/Dec 2001


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