Yellowstone National Park was the first national park to open it doors in 1872 and began paving the way for other parks yet to come. However, with the park opening the gray wolf (Canis lupus) population was already in decline. Yellowstone National Park did not provide protection originally for the gray wolf (Canis lupus) population, and the last of the gray wolves (Canis lupus) were killed by 1926. The Endangered Species Act of 1973 helped clear the way for re-introduction of the gray wolf (Canis lupus). In 1995, the gray wolf (Canis lupus) was first re-introduced in Lamar Valley in Yellowstone. With the re-introduction of the species, a new niche of tourism flocks to the park yearly to learn about and study this elusive species. The wolf watching in Yellowstone alone is estimated to generate $35 million a year for that regions economy (Robbins 2017).
The newly introduced gray wolves (Canis lupus) have helped create a thriving ecosystem in which tourism of Yellowstone National Park enjoy yearly, therefore encouraging conservation groups to continue efforts of further re-introduction. With a concentration in Lamar Valley, wolf tourism is primarily interested in viewing, hearing, and photographing animals as seen in Figure 1. Wild gray wolves (Canis lupus) are elusive, difficult to spot, and occur in low population densities. To meet the demands of tourists, wolves are tracked in the wild, bounded with fences and radio collars and encouraged to respond to human howling. The main area of focus for gray wolf (Canis lupus) packs in Yellowstone is Lamar Valley as seen in Figure 2. However, the packs do have some reach throughout the rest of the park (Wilson & Heberlein 1996).
The reintroduction of the gray wolf (Canis lupus) to Yellowstone National Park opened the door to recreationally view the gray wolves (Canis lupus) in a manner that was unanticipated both in terms of popularity and frequency. During the summer and winter of 1999 and 2000 interviews were conducted to gain insight into the wolf viewing experience. Results indicate that the Lamar Valley offers visitors engage in gray wolf (Canis lupus) viewing opportunity that may be characterized as accessible authenticity. Visitors engaged in extended viewing events, which were characterized by anticipation, drama, emotional involvement, and mystery (Montag, et al. 2005). Many of these elements were present even when respondents did not get the chance to experience the gray wolves (Canis lupus).
There are many factors that negatively affect predicting the Yellowstone gray wolf (Canis lupus) population. Environmental conditions like severe weather during the winter season, as well as human interactions like vehicle strikes and hunting outside the park borders, and pack migration around park boundaries all significantly affect the population statistics. The gray wolf (Canis lupus) population in the Yellowstone region constantly fluctuates, in December of 2012; the population was down to 34 wolves, a significant decrease from December 2007 when the National Park Service recorded a total of 94 gray wolves (Canis lupus) living within the park. However, by 2015, that number climbed to 99 wolves.
In March 2013 the National Park Service recorded that 12 gray wolves (Canis lupus) had been legally killed outside Yellowstone’s boundaries. It’s estimated that the Yellowstone population could withstand even higher losses and still sustain itself. Seven of the 10 packs in the park lost at least one member during the 2012-13 hunting season (Staff 2019).
According to Mills et al. (1993), a keystone predator controls the density of a primary consumer that is capable of excluding other species from the community. Wolves are a keystone predator because they help maintain the densities and behavior of an ecologically significant prey species. According to Camargo-Gamboa et al. (2010), when keystone predators are removed from a system, the increased abundance of prey animals leads to intense competition with one another and can drive other species to extinction. Therefore, keystone predators, such as the gray wolf (Canis lupus) help maintain biodiversity. Greater biodiversity leads to healthier ecosystems and are more likely to survive environmental changes (College & Kelley 2019). Despite the importance of all species, a majority of the public are mostly interested in charismatic megafauna, such as the gray wolves (Canis lupus). Charismatic species helps lead people/tourists to support conservation programs that save ecosystems (Engels & Jacobson 2007).
The Yellowstone gray wolf (Canis lupus), as charismatic megafauna, has the power to spark people’s interest in conservation that can later be extended to other species and can eventually be applied to support environmental policies. Yellowstone National Park has many programs for tourists to improve their knowledge and understanding about the natural world. The gray wolf (Canis lupus) presence offers a unique opportunity to discuss the importance of wolves and all other native species within the Yellowstone ecosystem. Learning about wolves in this way can then produce more positive attitudes toward the environment in general (College & Kelley 2019).