The Big Bad Wolf Makes Good

The Yellowstone Success Story and Those Who Want to Kill It

Chip Ward publishes an exceptional piece on the wolf controversy, bringing a compelling focus back to the real issues ~ and values ~ wolf advocates are fighting for :

The Big Bad Wolf Makes Good – Published on Wednesday, September 29, 2010 by

Sadly, the good news has been muted by subsequent political strife over wolf reintroduction outside of Yellowstone.  Along the northern front of the Rocky Mountains in Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Utah, and Colorado, as well as New Mexico and Arizona, so-called wolf wars have added fuel to a decades-old battle over the right to graze cattle or hunt on public land.  The shouting has overwhelmed both science and civil discourse.  This makes it all the harder to convey the lessons learned to an American public that is mostly ecologically illiterate and never really understood why wolves were put back into Yellowstone in the first place.  Even the legion of small donors who supported the project mostly missed the reasons it was undertaken, focusing instead on the “charismatic” qualities of wolves and the chance to see them in the wild.

Read it.







  1. Virginia Avatar

    This was the article I read on the Dailykos. It is a lengthy article, but contains arguments I had never heard in support of the reintroduction and continued support of wolves. I agree with Brian – read it!

  2. Cody Coyote Avatar
    Cody Coyote

    THIS is an outstanding essay ! It really encapsulates the wolf debate by emphasizing the positive role of wolves.

    I will send copies to most concerned wolf people ( which means mostly anti-wolfers , since I live in Cody WY , where wolf hating is mass hysteria rising to a cult phenomena . It will not change their minds, of course, but they can no longer sidestep into denial or disdain the methodology of reintroduction.).

    I hope most of the pro-wolf advocates who read Ralph’s Wildlife News will resolve to do as much : pass on an essay that spells out the positive value of wolves to balance the overwhelming negative rhetoric and disinformation tha surrounds us.

    Great essay, Chip !

    1. Elk275 Avatar

      Cody did you have a letter to the editor published in the Billings Gazette Monday or Tuesday?

      1. Cody Coyote Avatar
        Cody Coyote

        E: no

        I’m not the only coyote in the blogosphere

  3. Tim Bondy Avatar

    Is there any proof the reintroduction of wolves had a direct impact on beavers making a comeback in Yellowstone? Or is it just an opinion the author is throwing out there. Always a little worried when the story gets picked up by Dailykos, Alternet and HuffPo.

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar

      Tim Bondy,

      It would have to be an indirect impact. Directly speaking, wolves eat beaver.

      So the impact would have been wolves change the eating habits and number of deer, elk. Maybe their activities change other things that favor the growth dam building materials and beaver food.

  4. cc Avatar

    We often marvel at the anti-wolf crowd’s willful ignorance in embracing any gossip that fits their worldview and rejecting any peer-reviewed science that doesn’t. This essay makes too many assumptions and inaccuracies for us wolf advocates to embrace without being hypocritical.

    The essay makes many claims such as “willows are robust”, “with less competition from elk for grass, bison are doing better”, “songbirds are recovering”, and wolverines are benefiting from scavenging wolf-kills. These are the author’s assumptions, not proven facts.

    The author’s embrace of whatever might promote wolves at any given time is evident in his treatment of the decline in coyotes. He first states that by diminishing coyote populations, wolves had helped pronghorn. But later states that “elk are the sole species that has been diminished”. Say what?

    1. Save bears Avatar

      If I remember right, there was a study published in the last couple of weeks, stating wolves are not helping the aspens as much as was once thought, I wonder if there are any scientific studies being done on the willows similar to the aspen study..

  5. Alan Avatar

    “…If I remember right, there was a study published in the last couple of weeks, stating wolves are not helping the aspens as much as was once thought…” According to a study by the University of Wyoming. There’s a shocker!
    One need only visit the park to see that aspen and willows are obviously doing much better. Beaver are also thriving (judging by all the new lodges I have been seeing), which makes sense considering the dramatic increase in willows. I have also been seeing more moose the last couple of years, though “more” in the case of Yellowstone is a relative term.
    One can argue the cause of all this, but it only makes sense to a dummy like me that fewer elk munching the sprouts means more aspen and willows live long enough to get tall enough to survive. Longer growing seasons alone do not account for willows and aspen where there weren’t any before IMULO (in my uneducated layperson’s opinion).

    1. Save bears Avatar

      Well Alan,

      In reading over the study on Aspens, it seems as if the study, did not show the improvement that some have claimed, I have a tendency with my background in biology to accept the peer reviewed study information over the normal observer(and I am not putting anybody down!)

      I was simply wondering if any studies are going on with the willows…not making judgment one way or another on the article this person wrote.

      1. Alan Avatar

        Yes, I believe it was a peer reviewed study that claimed that the white tailed jackrabbit was extinct in the GYE; while my untrained eyes were watching them munch my dandylions and I was dodging them on the park road between Gardiner and Mammoth!
        In this case there are conflicting studies, are there not?
        As I said, you can argue the cause (and indeed, I will defer to those more learned than myself to determine the cause), but I’m in the park over 200 days a year and there is no question that aspen and willows are popping up all over the place.

      2. Save bears Avatar


        If I remember correctly, there was a study about the rabbits, but it was not peer reviewed and when other biologists started reading it and checking the data is when it came out stated that it was flawed..and the original scientist retracted the study, because it did not stand up to the requirement of repeatable results..

        Studies need to be able to produce the same or very close results with other qualified scientists reviewing it or it is not valid..which is what happened with the rabbit study.

      3. Save bears Avatar

        And Alan,

        I am not saying you are wrong, I am saying, I would like to see some more data on the situation, other than an author posting his personal feelings on his blog, that is all..

  6. Brian Ertz Avatar

    IMHO – It’s also extremely important that we recognize the different roles of different sciences.

    No one can deny that descriptive/objective science/discourse is really important when it comes to wildlife restoration ~ it can certainly inform, from a technical point of view, how to accomplish ‘A’ given ‘B’ ~ but scientists are not policy-makers – and descriptive science cannot and will not make decisions about the social values necessary to create political environments receptive to the values that conservationists hold ~ descriptive science cannot say that we ought accomplish ‘A’, let alone provide the onus for such.

    Wolf advocates need to better articulate their goal/values in such a way that creates a political environment receptive to a condition that ensures the adherence to objective science actually promotes conservation 😉 . that’s not the case right now. Right now – I can scientifically describe wolves as killing X number of calve-elk or livestock ~~ and if the policy-makers decide on an objective less than X of which exceeding X is reason enough to kill wolves ~ then they’ve got a science-based reason to kill wolves … right ?

    folk should be careful to not let their objectively critical minds (honed to the robust demands of a reductionism/scientific-method) hamstring the inspired normative voices absolutely necessary in the political context to promote policy that ensures conservation-objectives are the objectives fostered by adherence to science.

    What chip describes is more accurate/honest to me than any study ever could be, because it taps into a dream and aspiration ~ a normative objective ~ that I have. Science cannot describe that — science can’t be that honest in that way — it’s not supposed to be.

    And ultimately, the ideas that he articulates are well-enough supported for the political context, and accurate enough at describing why it is wolf-advocates struggle, as to be constructive.

    From an activist/policy perspective we need to realize ~ if the anti-wolfers spend their time calling BS on a claim about aspen regeneration then we get to have that debate. Having that be the subject of debate with public discourse is a lot better for wolves (even if we lose on the scientific-method standard of ‘proof’) than debating whether or not wolves are 200 lbs. (even when we win that debate !) because the context of the conversation sheds a light on wolves that is politically desirable rather than undesirable ……

    so – let’s have that be the start of the debate !

  7. SEAK Mossback Avatar
    SEAK Mossback

    I haven’t seen the recent aspen study either but would also defer to peer reviewed science over personal observation. Having said that, I was very impressed by the amount of young aspen when in the park a couple of weeks ago, so am somewhat surprised by the study results and Ralph’s observation that there didn’t seem to be much change. The one area where it really stood out was the Blacktail Plateau Drive, a one-way dirt road off the Blacktail plateau, where we used to drive occasionally to look at fall colors in the 1960s and 70s. I don’t remember anything close to what I saw on this trip as far as thick young aspen, but would have to fire up a projector with some old super-8 footage of those stands to be absolutely sure. All of the new growth appears recent and low enough that it could still be quite vulnerable at any time to an influx of hungry herbivores. That may be one reason there was not much improvement in aspen after the elk reductions in the early 1960s that took the herd down to what it is now or lower — as soon as they quit, elk increased again very quickly. Or perhaps there is something to the change in behavior of elk. I did not notice the same level of new growth in all of the stands, particularly those further out in the Lamar where we didn’t see so much young growth.

    1. WM Avatar


      It has been many years since my college classes in forest ecology, but do have some recollection that aspen is a succesion species often regenerating from suckers after fires, possibly at higher density levels than if the previous stand was climax forest, with mature stems. Were the areas you revisited, burned over Yellowstone locations from the fire 20+ years ago, or otherwise? When you say new grow, any idea how old the trees are that you found to be “thick young aspen.”

      1. SEAK Mossback Avatar
        SEAK Mossback

        WM –
        There were fires not too far from these stands but they don’t appear to have been directly over-run – although I suppose its possible a ground/grass fire swept through. The old trees that were there over 40 years ago are still healthy looking and the new growth is all associated with the older stands as understory although it is spreading a little beyond their perimeter. I don’t know the age of that thick understory of aspen saplings but most are not much more than 6-8 feet high with smaller ones near ground level – all pretty thick occupying most of the understory in the old groves.

        These are some of the very best aspens stands in the park and I assume they must have been part of any study. We ran into some aspen researchers several years ago up Rescue Creek behind Mt. Everets and they talked a bit about aspen and said they were trying to understand why they weren’t regenerating, but we didn’t learn much else. These recent stands looked very much to me like they were regenerating in a big way, and even expanding a little in area although they are still at a size that could be quite vulnerable to herbivores. They have the look of aspen thickets I’ve seen in more northern areas like the Cassiar country recently, but don’t remember in Yellowstone. I remember mostly just the big trees that are apparently all older (70-80 years or more) than I would have thought. I may yet dig out that 40 year old super-8 spool!

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Brian Ertz