YS 24-1 Lessons Learned from the Yellowstone Wolf Restoration Project

Lessons Learned from the Yellowstone Wolf Restoration Project

by Bruce Babbitt

In the twenty-one years since I signed the final decision documents, Yellowstone wolf restoration has continued to yield important new insights and many surprises, in the process attracting world recognition as a model of ecological restoration. Back in the 1970s, after passage of the Endangered Species Act, proposals to bring back the wolves generated little but continuing controversy. Again and again the effort seemed ready to collapse in acrimony and congressional resistance. Even the most optimistic proponents were unsure that the wolf would return within our lifetimes.

How this restoration effort could succeed against such long odds and in such a short time is a question that deserves exploration. Exactly how did the wolf cast off the image of reviled outlaw to inspire the most successful restoration effort of our time? How did public opinion swing so dramatically from negative to positive? Can the gray wolf story instruct us in ongoing efforts to save and restore endangered species, protect threatened ecosystems, and confront global warming?

The first lesson that I take from the Yellowstone experience is the imperative to continually explain, in language accessible to the public, the ecological case for restoring endangered species and their habitats. Aldo Leopold set an unforgettable example with his account of shooting one of the last wolves in the Escudilla Wilderness, only to watch a "fierce green fire dying in her eyes,"1 an epiphany that has ever since inspired so many of us to action.

A second lesson from the Yellowstone experience is that change typically comes up from the grass roots, growing slowly from the sustained efforts of determined citizens. Defenders of Wildlife and the redoubtable Renée Askins (founder of the Wolf Fund in 1986 for the sole purpose of reintroducing wolves into Yellowstone) were among the many who led the way. Others must now carry on to complete the task of defining a place for wolves on landscapes outside park boundaries and to restore other endangered species across the land.

An especially important part of the grass roots process was the manner in which advocates, park leaders, and scientists came together to design and use the Environmental Impact Statement decision process as an outreach opportunity to organize innumerable public meetings that awakened public opinion in favor of restoration.

And not least, the personnel of the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were the unsung heroes of this process, persevering in the face of intense opposition from elected officials and local interest groups. They deserve our respect and thanks and continuing support.

1Leopold, A. 1966. A Sand County Almanac. Oxford University Press, New York, USA.


Bruce Babbitt served as the Secretary of the Interior during the Clinton administration (1993-2001) when the initial wolf reintroductions occurred. He was Governor of Arizona from 1978 to 1987.

Last updated: July 10, 2016

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