The truck's plates say it all: "4WOLVES." Inside are an Iowa couple who return to the Yellowstone country year after year to be campground hosts in the nation's first national park. They return for the stunning scenery, for the wide open country that is the Lamar Valley, for herds of elk, for shaggy bison and for wolves.
Today's Yellowstone is a different place than 1995's Yellowstone. Biologists and ecologists can see it on the ground. Outdoor educators see it in their businesses. And visitors see it on the roads.
Travel the road from Cooke City into the Lamar Valley and you'll see it too. At pullouts all up and down the valley will be dozens of people standing, pointing, quietly observing. They are there for Yellowstone's wolves.
Jim Halfpenny is an outdoor educator who specializes in large carnivores. He lives in Gardiner, Montana, a town on the northern edge of the park and from there, he runs classes in wolf ecology. In 1995, he taught one class. Since that time, he has seen the wolf education business spring to life.
"There were fifty-four classes on wolves taught in the first half of 2000 from eleven different organizations. From an educational standpoint, this has just been monstrous in the way it has developed," said Halfpenny.
Wolves Mean Less Elk for Hunters and Hunting Outfitters
Economically, the story has been extremely bright. In 1992, before wolves were reintroduced into the park, a University of Montana economist named John Duffield co-authored a study entitled "The Economics of Wolf Recovery in Yellowstone National Park." That study predicted a loss to the hunter/outfitter business on the high end of about $500,000 per year. This would be a direct loss to hunting outfitters due to the fact that a declining elk population due to wolves would mean less elk to hunt, which would mean less clients. On the flip side, the benefits to wolf recovery in terms of tourism dollars, educators, and outfitters who specialized in wildlife observation, not hunting, were predicted in the $7-10 million annual range, a gain many times greater than the loss.
A follow-up study was done to check the accuracy of the predictions. People want to see wolves, and they come from all over the world to do so. And they bring money, said Duffield.
For a motel owner who struggles during the dreaded "shoulder-season"-those months between the peak tourist seasons-wolves have been extremely good news. Three years ago, Gerlie Weinstein left her life in New Orleans as an English teacher to come to Cooke City to run a business and watch wildlife. Today, she owns the Alpine Motel in Cooke City.
"My business has increased yearly, and increased from the business that the former owners did," said Weinstein. "I came here because I watch wildlife and that's what a lot of my clients do."
The months of April, October, and November can be hard times for motel owners, but with the addition of wolves into the park, businesses like the Alpine Motel don't need to close up shop during these times.
"We had our best November and best October ever, that would be people coming to see the wildlife," she said. "They are coming for the wolves and they are coming for the bears."
What's more, the potential is just barely being tapped, according to some observers.
"Over time, I think this is really going to be considered as a world class opportunity for people to see wolves in the wild," said Rick McIntyre, who works for the National Park Service to provide help educate wolf watchers. In terms of the economic impact, there's just tremendous potential for local business people. To me that's just a tremendously positive potential, having the wolves here."
What Brings in More Money - Wolf Watching or Elk Hunting?
Jim Halfpenny has made an attempt to quantify and compare the economic returns of wolf watching to elk hunting. "One exercise that I do in my wolf classes is I put up a blackboard and I have the people go through and make some sort of evaluation of what wolf watching brings into the northern Yellowstone ecosystem in dollars and what hunting brings," said Halfpenny. "There's a lot of assumptions in such an exercise, but the bottom line is in the northern (Yellowstone) ecosystem, wolf watching brings in four times what hunting is bringing in.
"We have counted 100,000 visitors as of June, 2011, that have been out and watched wolves and then you make assumptions about what they spend in the filling station, the restaurants, etcetera, and what the hunters spend," said Halfpenny. "You know Montana's own statistics show the average late-hunt hunter spends $39 a day up here."
Halfpenny figures that wolf watchers spend about $160 per day in the area. And there's tremendous potential for growth.
"It's obvious that wolves are one of the most charismatic animals in the world and there's no end to how many people would like to see a wolf in the wild, so Yellowstone is one of the most unique opportunities in the world where an average person can and does have a real excellent chance of having that experience," said McIntyre.