Hunting Wolves Hurts Tourism

Wolf watching generates millions of dollars, but a new study finds that tourist sightings of the predators plummet when hunting is permitted.
Wolves outside Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. (Photo: Sandy Huffaker/Corbis via Getty Images)
May 3, 2016· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

Have you ever taken a vacation to some faraway place where you hoped to see something unique but ended up going home disappointed?

That’s happening in certain years in Denali and Yellowstone national parks, where tourists hoping to view wolves in the wild don’t always get the chance to observe the enigmatic canines they expect to see.

For years, conservationists have suspected that the lack of wolves visible to wildlife enthusiasts had something to do with nearby hunting and trapping of the predators. The states around Yellowstone National Park have all had wolf-hunting seasons. Meanwhile, Alaska permits legal hunts in the border areas around Denali National Park and Preserve. “Many of us had heard anecdotally from regular wolf watchers at Yellowstone National Park, and from visitors to Denali, that wolf-viewing opportunities had declined,” said Amaroq Weiss, West Coast wolf organizer for the Center for Biological Diversity.

The problem with those observations was that they were not substantiated by scientific evidence. “What was needed to determine whether or not the perceived decline in viewing opportunities was correlated with wolf-hunting and trapping beyond the protected boundaries was actual data collection and analysis,” Weiss said.

Now we have that analysis. According to a paper published last week in PLOS One, tourists in Yellowstone and Denali have significantly lower chances of seeing wolves in the years when hunting happens. When hunts did not occur, wolf sightings increased by 45 percent in Yellowstone and more than doubled in Denali.

“I was completely surprised,” said the study’s senior author, Laura Prugh of the University of Washington. “I did not think there was any way we would detect an effect of wolf harvest on sightings, let alone a strong effect, and in both parks.”

Although the paper quantified the reduced sightings, exactly why that happens still needs to be resolved. For example, nearby hunting could change wolves’ behavior, making them less likely to visit areas where they could be seen by humans. Further behavioral studies would be necessary to prove that, Prugh said.

RELATED: Alaska’s Wolves Face Catastrophe

The paper also suggested the possibility that the “bold” wolves that tend to be seen by tourists could be the same ones intentionally or unintentionally targeted during hunts and trapping. The evidence for that hypothesis comes from wolves that survived hunts around Denali. “One year, two wolves were photographed wearing broken snares, and in another year, a wolf was seen on the park road carrying a trap on its foot,” said lead author Bridget Borg, a biologist with the National Park Service who completed the research for her doctorate at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “These instances clearly indicate that the wolves susceptible to trapping at the boundaries of the parks are also those that provide for wolf-viewing opportunities along the park road,” she explained.

The paper concluded that there is a likely economic trade-off between wolf-viewing activities and wolf-hunting. The authors wrote that sales of Montana’s wolf-hunting tag brought in more than $400,000 in revenue. Alaska’s hunting economy, meanwhile, is worth more than $1.3 billion, according to statistics cited in the paper. By comparison, wolf-watching activities generate an estimated $35 million a year in each of the three states around Yellowstone—Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming—while all wildlife-viewing activities in Alaska generate $2.7 billion in economic activity per year.

That revenue could be at risk if tourists don’t see wolves and either don’t come back or tell their friends about their unsuccessful vacations. The next step, Prugh said, would be to quantify that economic impact. “If sightings fell below a certain probability, would that discourage tourists?” she asked.

Borg added that the National Park Service is trying to quantify the economic value of both wolf viewing and wolf harvesting around Denali, as well as whether or not the chance to see more wolves would attract more tourists to the park.

Conservationists have a more immediate take on the new paper. Weiss, who was not involved with the study, pointed to previous research that found that wolf-hunting and trapping can cause entire packs to split up or dissolve, affecting the entire species’ opportunities for survival. “This paper, which demonstrates that state-sanctioned wolf-hunting and trapping seasons adjacent to protected areas negatively affects wolf-viewing opportunity, is one more piece of compelling information telling us that the practice needs to stop,” she said.