How Wolves Don’t Change Rivers

In Animals, Environment by JD King11 Comments

Wolves have not changed the rivers in Yellowstone.

Yes, you heard that right. The wolves that were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in 1995 have not restored the landscape. They have not brought back the aspens and willows. They have not brought back the beavers or the songbirds. And no, the rivers have not changed, either.

Then why does “How Wolves Change Rivers” (HWCR) claim otherwise? Because the creators of the four-minute long viral video (now approaching 20 million hits just via YouTube) “are adherents to romance biology,” according to former USFWS biologist Jim Beers. Plus, the whole notion of Yellowstone as wilderness is “inherently racist,” argues wildlife biologist Dr. Charles Kay. I spoke with both Jim Beers and Dr. Kay in preparing this article. Dr. Kay was especially put out by the video’s claims.

HWCR Lie: Wolves’ presence has improved the landscape in Yellowstone

“Funny that you should ask,” replied Dr. Kay. “I just returned from Yellowstone National Park where I revisited many of my old research sites. Willows and aspen have grown taller at a few locations but there has not been any far reaching trophic cascade. The Lamar River and other streams have not recovered—in fact, the Lamar River in the Lamar Valley is worse than ever.”

The Lamar Valley was once famous for abundant elk herds which (over) grazed there prior to the reintroduction of wolves and has subsequently been the premiere location inside of Yellowstone for wolf enthusiasts to catch a glimpse of their wilderness idol. But today, you most likely won’t see any elk in the Lamar. And you won’t see as many wolf-watchers, either. That’s because wolves have killed the majority of the elk—and deer and moose—and most wolves have since migrated out of Yellowstone in search of territory and food sources.

HWCR Lie: Wolves killed only a few of the animals in Yellowstone

Prior to the reintroduction of wolves there were close to 20,000 elk in the northern elk herd. It didn’t take long for wolves to reduce that number to less than 4,500. Today the few elk, deer, and moose that still draw breath cluster on private property outside of the park or in the small towns inside the park. Why? Because the animals are seeking sanctuary from the wolf! By the way, according to Dr. Kay, moose numbers have dropped from around 1,000 to almost zero.

HWCR Lie: Wolves have created widespread “trophic cascading”

You’ll still see plenty of buffalo roaming in the Lamar Valley. That’s because wolves have not changed the habits of the number one species that’s wreaking havoc on the valley’s meadows and riparian areas—the American bison. “The Lamar valley is worse than cattle feedlot. There are 3,500 bison in the Lamar pounding things into oblivion,” said Dr. Kay. He also mentioned humorously that the bison are now wrecking some of the aspens and willows too.

There’s been plenty of controversy about how to handle the growing bison problem, but the video ignored this. It’s not just because of their increasing numbers but also because of disease that can spread to the nearby cattle herds. In fact, last winter the Park Service culled 900 bison. It wasn’t the first time this happened and it won’t be the last.

HWCR Lie: Wolves are the keystone predator

As should be evident by the fact that it was people who eliminated the wolf from the lower 48 in the early 20th century in the first place and then it was people who brought the wolf back to Yellowstone in the mid ‘90s, it is not wolves but it is people who are the keystone predators. This has been the case in America for thousands of years.

“Native people determine the distribution and abundance of elk, deer, and other ungulates—not carnivores. To call wolves, grizzly bears, and other carnivores keystone predators is white racist theology,” says Dr. Kay. He demonstrates this in his breakdown of the Lewis and Clark expedition where he charts how the hunting pressure from the native tribes determined both the location and the quantity of wildlife.

According to Dr. Kay, “If everything was a wilderness untouched by the hand of man, than Whites could not have stolen indigenous lands nor committed genocide. If I could ban one word from the English language, it would be, ‘wilderness’ as wilderness is a thousand times worse than slavery. Slaves, after all, were bred and kept alive. No such kindness was shown to Native Americans. In addition, freed slaves became citizens of the United States 70 years before the federal government “granted” U.S. citizenship to indigenous people. Moreover, freed slaves joined the Union Army to hunt down and kill aboriginal peoples.”

In conclusion, any natural benefit that “How Wolves Change Rivers” claims the reintroduction of wolves brought to Yellowstone could have been easily mimicked by mankind. Plus people could have achieved results far better and more consistently. Presenting Yellowstone—or any “natural” area—as a self-optimizing, ideally and originally man-free paradise, is misleading at best.

JD King is a contributing writer for The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation. He is also a filmmaker and has two documentaries on environmental subjects, Crying Wolf, and BLUE.


J.D. King loves Jesus, his wife Katherine, hiking, camping, hunting, fly fishing, and filmmaking.



    The NPS disagrees with you.-
    Dr Kay has his own political agenda and that throws his I punt into a different light.
    You are a fraud, sir.


    Dr. Charles Kay is one of the most respected and reputable researchers when it comes to predators. His views are based strictly on science and in-person research, not on any agenda…sorry to burst your bubble Ms. Jones. It’s nice to see someone put this “how wolves change rivers” drama to bed…talk about an agenda, wow. Thank you, JD, good read.


    Yes it is easy to sway public sentiment by creating a video clip with stunning scenery and romantic notions (which by the way didn’t match the story at all). You are certainly correct, the wolves have changed quite a bit in Yellowstone since they were reintroduced, but not the way the video suggests. The NPS ruined Yellowstone the day they named it a National Park; manipulating every aspect of the complex wildlife interactions that once characterized the landscape. Trying to restore an original ecosystem is impossible, particularly since nobody could ever agree as to what was original. Natives used to control vegetation with fire, then the European influence used predation control (on nearly every predator in the area) to “improve” the area. With every new policy in Yellowstone, came more damage to the native ecosystem. It’s kind of like plastic surgery. Once you get too far down that road… All said and done, there’s more work to be done in Yellowstone. The question is, as it has been since the early 1900’s, what is it the public wants to see there? Unfortunately with nature, you can’t have your cake and eat it too in nature I’m afraid. Regardless of what the NPS wants people to believe.


    It’s hard to know what to believe. Seems like Kay and King both have agendas.


    Dr. Charles Kay is also an adjunct professor of political science at Utah State University. Most of the talks he gives seem to be to livestock associations and private property rights groups. Despite his wildlife credentials he seems to come down on the commodity side of the ecosystem equation. In my mind that colors pretty much any thing he says in regards to predators. Blame it on the bison,and the observation that that wolves are not efficient predators on them. yes, ecosystems are complex and the ” how wolves change rivers” is simplistic. So let’s keep watching and learn something instead of jumping to conclusions and on someone’s political bandwagon.


    Isn’t it better to believe the truth lies somewhere in between the two beliefs. I find it hard to believe that the wolves introduced to Yellowstone decimated an elk and deer population of over 20,000 to less than 4,500 since 1995. Are there now hundreds of wolves eating every deer in sight. I’m no expert or scientist but that would be more than hunting or authorized culling could achieve and man is a much more efficient killer.


    Look at the hunting tag numbers since the reintroduction. They have plummeted. Wolves have destroyed the Elk herds. Humans are more efficient killers, but they can be told when to quit. You can’t tell a wolf to stop killing,


    Just do a little research into the “The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation” and you will notice that they are just a bunch of climate deniers and religious nuts with unsupported claims.


    In March of 2006 we moved onto the Hungry Bear Ranch outside if Donnelly, Idaho, that summer we had a herd of 90 elk with 4 bulls. That number remained fairly constant until 2013 when we noticed a decline in the number of elk. At that time we started to see some wolve tracks and an occasional wolf, that summer we had two calves and a 2100 lb bull killed and partially eaten. We also had mare run through the 8 strand elk fence 3 times and she died from loss of blood. I called F & G, they came out and searched the area for tracks but did not find any, he said , that due to the grass there was no place he could see tracks. All he would say about the horse was she was in mortal terror to go through the fence 3 times like she did, that it was not the work of a bear or cougar, he would not say wolf. This past summer 2017, we saw only 5 cow elk and 3 calves, no bulls. We packed into the River of No Return Wilderness Twice in the last three years and all we saw was 1 doe, no elk, that used to be loaded with game.

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