Review | Yellowstone Wolves: Science and Discovery in the World’s First National Park

G.T. Dempsey


Douglas W. Smith, Daniel R. Stahler, and Daniel R. MacNulty, eds. Yellowstone Wolves: Science and Discovery in the World’s First National Park (University of Chicago Press, 2020), pp. xvii, 339  ISBN: 9780226728346  $35

     This handsome book may be coffee-table in size, but it is thoroughly scholarly in content.  A collaborative effort to investigate the successes and failures of the re-introduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park and the lessons to be drawn, its contributions are authored by nearly eighty scientists and scholars, featuring a foreword by Jane Goodall.  

Its co-editors could not represent greater specific expertise in the subject.  Smith was the initial biologist for the Yellowstone Wolf Project and has been the project leader since 1997; Stahler is the current project lead biologist and, along with Smith, shares responsibilities for the park’s elk project as well as being the endangered species coordinator; MacNulty is an associate professor of wildlife ecology at Utah State University and was one of the first volunteers to be hired by the Wolf Project.

Book cover for Yellowstone Wolves which shows two wolves on the side of a slope in the snow.

     This is a book about a change-of-heart.  By 1926, after just a decade’s murderous efforts, the new National Park Service had eliminated the wolf population in Yellowstone.  Beginning in 1995 and starting with forty-one wolves, the National Park Service has succeeded in bringing wolves back to Yellowstone.  

Free weekly newsletter

Fill out your e-mail address to receive our newsletter!

Today, there are over 500 wolves to be found in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (some nineteen million acres).  This transformation – in restoring Yellowstone’s natural ecosystem but, even more so, in mankind’s attitudes – is covered as comprehensively as humanly possible.  

In her brief Foreword, Jane Goodall sets the stage and the tone:  As a child, after reading Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, she ‘fantasized about living with wolves’ in North America (an experience certainly duplicated in the lives of most all of us as children).  

In Goodall’s case, if she had not been ‘given the chance to study chimpanzees,’ then high on her list would have been wolves.  As she puts it, the reason for the change-of-heart is simplicity itself: ‘…after the wolves had been eliminated…the numbers of elks had increased (with their main predator gone)..which impacted the vegetation…which affected many other animal species.  This is what happens when we interfere with the balance of nature.’

     In the nearly three decades since the wolves’ re-introduction, ‘scientists have studied their myriad behaviors, from predation to mating to wolf pup play, building up a one-of-a-kind field study’ allowing us ‘to witness how the arrival of top predators can influence an entire ecosystem.’  

The book’s three-dozen plus studies, guest essays, and side-bar surveys are, accordingly, grouped into six sections: ‘History and Reintroduction,’ ‘Behavioral and Population Ecology,’ ‘Genetics and Disease,’ ‘Wolf-Prey Relationships,’ ‘Ecosystem Effects and Species Interactions,’ and ‘Conservation, Management, and the Human Experience.’   

Thus, we ‘learn about individual wolves, population dynamics, wolf-prey relationships, genetics, disease, wild-life management and policy…and the rippling ecosystem effects wolves have had on Yellowstone’s wild and rare landscape.’  

This is a success story: ‘Once drastically altered by people, [Yellowstone] is now arguably more pristine than in its entire history.  A perfect moment in the park’s long history to tell stories of recovery and change.’

A grey wolf in Yellowstone National Park.  Photo: NPS / Jacob W. Frank, public domain.
A grey wolf in Yellowstone National Park, November 7, 2017. Photo: NPS / Jacob W. Frank, public domain.
The Gibbon wolf pack pauses in the snowy landscape, March 24, 2007.  Photo: NPS/Doug Smith, public domain.
The Gibbon wolf pack pauses in the snowy landscape, March 24, 2007. Photo: NPS/Doug Smith, public domain.

     The re-introduction of the wolves was controversial.  The co-editors acknowledge, up front, that ‘science-based, expert knowledge is pitted against practical experience in the woods and mountains.’  

They have chosen to address this experiential conflict, first, ‘by turning our raw data into stories – the bedrock of human existence’ and, thus, making the book accessible to a wide audience; and, secondly, through ‘a collaborative spirit [leading] to a multi-authored book that includes factual, science-based chapters illustrated with dramatic photos and graphics, informative box essays, and invited guest essays at the end of each section in which contributors address the normative question: “Why are Yellowstone wolves important?”’      

Members of the Druid wolf pack chase a bull elk in Yellowstone.  Photo: NPS/Doug Smith, public domain.
Members of the Druid wolf pack chase a bull elk in Yellowstone, December 9, 2007. Photo: NPS/Doug Smith, public domain.

     For starters, they tell us, it enables concentrated observation of wolf-behavior.  In less than a decade from their re-introduction, 517 wolf encounters with elk and 134 with bison had been recorded (by comparison with but a handful by individual observers in the many years previously).  

Secondly, ‘the howl of the wolf is seductive and attracts widespread attention [to] examining why we destroy wilderness…at our peril.’  Thirdly, ‘much in the way of attitudes towards wolves and our understanding of wolf biology has already changed considerably [since their re-introduction] and the informative ecological science that followed…. Yellowstone provides a unique and ongoing opportunity to observe interactions of wolves and associated species in a complex trophic network shaped by an environment that remains comparatively “natural.”’  

I could go on adding to this list of derived benefits from the Yellowstone Wolf Project, but it would be far better for you to read the book yourself.

     The co-editors’ aim, and their hope, is that the focus by them on this ‘nexus between science and practical knowledge’ will serve as the ‘starting-point for a conversation, a celebration of the richness of nature, whether utilitarian or preservationist.’  

As the closing essay puts it: ‘The wolf is a human dilemma….  Even after millennia, we are still confused about what a responsible relationship with nature and animals should be.’  This splendid book is a major contribution to this vital, continuing debate. 

Yellowstone Wolves: Science and Discovery in the World’s First National Park is available on (affiliate link).


A review copy of this book was received from the publisher. 

Geography Realm is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to


Photo of author
About the author
G.T. Dempsey
G.T. Dempsey is a Research Associate in the history of Late Antiquity at the University of California at Davis and, as a retired American career diplomat, he is also a commentator on American foreign policy.