Thinking About Adaptation, Naturalness and Tourism: Wyofile Wolf Story

This WyoFile story on wolves is interesting because it delves into some philosophical issues around managing . Now I am not knowledgeable enough to know anything about how much hunting should be allowed, using which practices, where or when or even if.    I’m just interested in how people think about it, as discussed in the article.  And, to be transparent, I’m one of those people who used to enjoy wolf-watching in Yellowstone.

The title is Yellowstone: Wolf hunt altered behavior, damaged research.  Now some of might be thinking, hey- when ungulate behavior was changed due to wolf reintroduction, that was thought to be “good.” Perhaps not to the involved ungulates, but to the “ecosystem.” In this calculus, some organisms and populations count less than others, based on a philosophical idea/abstraction.

A recent spate of hunting has altered fundamental aspects of the canines’ behavior, and threatened the foundations of one of the most storied wildlife research efforts in American history, according to park scientists.


Many more wolves have been getting frisky than expected. Ordinarily in Yellowstone, only each pack’s dominant alpha male and female get the opportunity to mate. The custom is reflected in 27 years of hard data: 85% of the time, park packs produce single litters.

But this year — in the wake of at least 25 wolves being shot or trapped just beyond the park’s boundaries — Yellowstone Wolf Project personnel observed three or four females in two different Northern Range packs “tied” and breeding, Smith said. “Usually the most dominant wolf prevents other wolves from breeding,” he said. “You lose that [dominant] wolf and it opens up opportunities for other wolves.”

It appears, in other words, that with their pack hierarchies disrupted by the record-setting killings, some wolves have abandoned their selective mating customs.

Perhaps this change is good from the genetic perspective, as more offspring by different combos of males and females. If I were a wolf, and got a chance to mate and produce offspring from this change, it’s not hard to imagine that increased friskiness might be a good thing.

“It’s broken apart the social structure, it’s messed with the hierarchy, and it’s actually produced more pups. Now this is a hypothesis, but this is what I would call an artificial stimulation of wolf reproductive capacity

Is adapting to this change “good” or “bad”? From whose perspective? It reminds me of the Tennyson quote “The old order changeth yielding place to new.”

For researchers it holds a unique appeal: In the Lower 48, Yellowstone is the easiest place to observe wolves in their natural state. Since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reintroduced 31 wolves to the park in 1995 and ’96, the intensive research effort has been predicated on understanding wolf ecology in the absence of human persecution.

In what sense is Yellowstone a “natural” state? Wolves descended (originally) from only 31 Canadian wolves, being heavily watched by scientists, hordes of humans and so on.

“The question now is … let’s see what happens,” Smith said. “But we really don’t want that, because it is not aligned with the National Park Service mission. The National Park Service mission is to protect natural processes.”

I looked on the Park Service website and here is what they say their mission is:

The mission of the National Park Service is to preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.

This makes more sense- if the mission were to protect natural processes they probably would need to shut down the visitation (4,860,537 in 2021).

The Yellowstone wolves on the Northern Range, accustomed to throngs of humans with pricey optics, lacked a recognition that humans posed a lethal threat, and they proved relatively easy targets. “If you’re a wolf watcher in the park, you know they tolerate you at 100 to 200 yards,” Smith said. “That’s a perfect rifle shot.”

This doesn’t seem “natural” to me. But who gets to define what “natural” is? Most interestingly defined as a kind of packaged “nature”experience that brings in more income and economic values than locals wandering the woods.

The prospect that Yellowstone’s remaining wolves have gained a newfound wariness is not welcomed by all. Gardiner naturalist and biologist Nathan Varley, who runs the Yellowstone Wolf Tracker guiding service, said skittish wolves are his biggest concern and a worst-case scenario for his business.

“Wolves that survive hunting events, they quickly learn that there’s survival value in avoiding humans,” Varley said. “And we’ve relied extensively on wolves that do not have that inclination.”

Here’s another “natural”.

“Everybody is just going to look at last year’s count and this year’s count, and go what’s the big deal?” Smith said. “Well the big deal is this is no longer a natural population. It’s a human-exploited population and our job [in the National Park Service] is to have a natural population.”

But this gets back to the question earlier in the article:

Hoppe doesn’t think it’s fair that wolves are regarded differently than other park wildlife pursued by hunters across the boundary.

“The Indians, they shoot the elk and the buffalo and they’re still shooting them and it’s almost the end of April,” he said.”

If it were “the job” of the Park Service  to “have a natural population” of wolves (given that that appears to be a code-expression for “no hunting off park”) why wouldn’t that apply to all species?  And I must have missed the session where the agency tells you that employees get to make up their own versions of the agency mission/job, follow those in their daily work, and describe them as the agency mission to journalists.  I would have greatly enjoyed the opportunity.

9 thoughts on “Thinking About Adaptation, Naturalness and Tourism: Wyofile Wolf Story”

  1. I wish that interview were in the form of a video. Doug is calm and collected until he tells a whopper, and then his hands start a flapping in front of him like little birds flapping their wings of their own volition. Perfect fella to get in a freindly game of poker with.

    As for naturalness, Yellowstone wolves are what they call habituated. Reared on PBJs and McDonalds care of the tourists and photographers, six million a year. More likely the gray wolf in its “natural” state, whatever that is, is persecuted by humans and yet remains a “species of least concern” similar to the gray squirrel. The population circles the globe in the northern hemisphere and is looked upon none to fondly in Alaska, Canada, and Siberia. I’d think naturally they have been shot at for a few thousand years.

    The article is better written, and in greater depth, than many of the same, but in the end it is only another advocacy piece, using the same claims that were in doubt long ago, and documented in the peer reviewed summation type paper (Sanctified is it’s abbreviated name) written by the world’s foremost wolf researcher David Mech, and Doug was even one of the reviewers, he just can’t help repeating the advocacy whoppers.

    A quarter century later, untold millions of dollars, and the eternal enmity of residents, is the final result of their little experiment.

  2. I think this idea is misguided: “Perhaps this change is good from the genetic perspective, as more offspring by different combos of males and females.”

    Wolves evolved to have the strongest individuals breed, thereby ensuring such genetics are carried forward. If there is a potential for inbreeding depression due to low genetics diversity, creating conditions that allow weaker individuals to breed could be the thing that triggers inbreeding depression.

    • A. inbreeding depression is caused by related organisms mating. Now if the population started at 31 and has not experienced migration from other wolves, chances are that they are inbred (and have low genetic diversity) compared to other populations. If you use the old 50/500 rule (based on mathematical calculations) they are all inbred to some extent. But inbreeding depression is a relative lack of fitness.. which would be relative to others in that population.

      Now it could be that the formerly dominant individuals are “less” inbred, and that they are more likely to produce offspring that are less inbred due to some kind of assortative mating, but we don’t know that for sure. We don’t even know to what extent being dominant is due to genetics. Some of it may be due to environment (how many bros and sises to compete with? how good a mom was his mother?), personality traits (not entirely genetic) and to stochastic factors (did the previous leader die just as this individual happened to be at the height of his powers?).

      And the fact that there are more pups should be considered to be a good thing. It increases selection pressure so only the most fit survive. In which case, it seems like it would be easier for selection to weed out those that truly suffer from inbreeding depression and are less fit.

  3. The dual purposes of the Park Service mission are kind of like the “multiple-use” mission of the Forest Service. You seem pretty hostile to half of that mission, claiming that agency staff made it up. It IS the job of the Park Service to provide “natural” values, which is how they provide for “the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.”

    As to what is natural, I agree with A that evolution led to single, dominant breeders being the best strategy for the species. Those are probably the ones who were best at avoiding being hunted, too. I also agree with SS that the habituation of the Yellowstone wolves is what is not natural (but that’s the other half of the mission, and the one they actually promoting when they argue against hunting). However, the effect of that habituation on the ecosystem characteristics subject to their research may be minor.

    The difference between elk and wolves is that elk are “naturally” a prey species. Whether the threat is wolves or humans, they should be wary. They had become unnaturally unwary in Yellowstone.

    • Nope, I’m not hostile to any mission. I’m saying words have meaning and if the Park Service went to a great deal of trouble (in all likelihood) to develop a mission statement, generally employees should use it.

      • The Park Service didn’t give itself its conservation/enjoyment mission (mandate), Congress did:

        “The Secretary, acting through the Director of the National Park Service, shall promote and regulate the use of the National Park System by means and measures that conform to the fundamental purpose of the System units, which purpose is to conserve the scenery, natural and historic objects, and wild life in the System units and to provide for the enjoyment of the scenery, natural and historic objects, and wild life in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” 54 U.S.C. Section 100101(a).


        “Congress reaffirms, declares, and directs that the promotion and regulation of the various System units shall be consistent with and founded in the purpose established by subsection (a), to the common benefit of all the people of the United States. The authorization of activities shall be construed and the protection, management, and administration of the System units shall be conducted in light of the high public value and integrity of the System and shall not be exercised in derogation of the values and purposes for which the System units have been established, except as directly and specifically provided by Congress.” 54 U.S.C. Section 100101(b)(2).

        • John, thanks, I get that the legal requirements are more important than the mission statement.
          “which purpose is to conserve the scenery, natural and historic objects, and wild life in the System units and to provide for the enjoyment of the scenery, natural and historic objects, and wild life in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
          But Smith said:
          “to protect natural processes” Processes are neither objects nor wildlife nor scenery.

          So… it sounds like I am more specific about what the language means.

          But more importantly, the broader the mission, the more likely the NPS will argue that it should be able to regulate/suggest/dictate activities outside the NPS land area to protect things within the land area… like, say, air pollution or climate change or hunting. Or the appearance of powerlines on the horizon.

          Now I don’t know the specifics of the “right answers” to all this.. I am just a bit wary of the NPS determining what should be done outside .. when the legislations seems to say “in the System units.”

          • I don’t see NPS “determining” anything here. They are providing (monitoring) information, that I would hope goes into an interagency discussion of wolf hunting with those who have the authority to manage it. It would be nice if the federal government would settle on “one voice” for this discussion. (The Forest Service has the authority to close national forest lands to wolf hunting.)

    • It seems to me that throughout generations of evolution, wolves had become wary of humans. So perhaps allowing people and encouraging them to get close is “unnatural”. And if you think that humans are unnatural, I think we’ve been coexisting with wolves for many thousands of years.

      Because a behavioral strategy used to be the best, doesn’t mean it’s the best now. Is it “good” for organisms to adapt to human caused climate change, but “bad” for organisms to adapt to human hunting? Organisms have behavioral plasticity. It’s almost as if the goal is to have a park where it’s managed as if it were “the past without Native Americans”, since it never happened, would be difficult to do.


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