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Gray Wolves Increase Tourism in Yellowstone National Park

Ecotourism in Yellowstone has increased since gray wolves were reintroduced to the ecosystem, boosting local economies by an estimated $5 million per year.

Wolf-based tourism is proving to be highly profitable for small outfitters in and around Yellowstone National Park-$5 million or more for 2011 is expected.

Wolf Ecotourism in Yellowstone

Before wolves were reintroduced into the park, a University of Montana economist named John Duffield co-authored a study called “The Economics of Wolf Recovery in Yellowstone National Park.” Today, Duffield and associates at BioEconomics in Missoula are revisiting the subject with a survey at park entrances and a survey targeting wolf watchers in the Lamar Valley.

“We predicted a 4-5 percent increase in tourism because of the wolves,” said Chris Neher, a BioEconomics economist working with Duffield. Since then, brief surveys have shown a 3.5-4 percent increase in tourism. Considering a 3 million annual visitor count, said Neher, that’s still a strong impact.

In an April 2011 letter to the Montana governor and congressional delegation, outdoor educator Jim Halfpenny announced his 2005 survey results on “wolf ecotourism.”

He focused on organizations offering programs where the word “wolf” was used either in the title or program description as a promotional sales tool to attract the public. A second category included programs where “wolf” was not used as a promotional term but that took advantage of wolves to increase the benefit to their customers-for example, a wildlife watching program.

Survey Results Include:

  • For 2005, 34 organizations are identified as potential “wolf-based” outfitters. Halfpenny obtained information from 27 of them.
  • These 27 organizations offer 569 departure dates during 2005, providing opportunities for 6,165 participants, at an average cost of $761 per person (program costs varied from $45 for one day to $3,300 for 7 days).
  • The total potential income is $4,690,134 for 2005.
  • Programs in which wolves enhance wildlife-related experiences potentially generated another $234,348 (494 people).
  • Total: $4,924,482.

Growth in wolf ecotourism has been phenomenal, according to Halfpenny. “In the year 2000, my survey included 11 organizations offering 57 departure dates,” he wrote in his letter. He also noted that Canada, England, France, Germany, Japan, and Netherlands repeatedly bring tours to the Yellowstone because of wolves.

Indeed, Halfpenny noted that the 100,000th wolf-watching visitor was counted actually viewing wolves on June 26, 2002. From 1995 to 2002, that represents an average of 14,285 visitors per year coming to the park to view wolves, he said. That number includes outfitter customers as well as un-guided tourists.

Because the Lamar Valley is the hot-spot for wolf viewing, most wolf-associated income enters the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem GYE) from the north and northeast through Gardiner and Cooke City, Montana, said Halfpenny. His survey made no attempt to calculate the monies spent at local restaurants, hotels, gas stations, float trip outfitters, bookstores, tourist centers, or national park visitor centers.

He acknowledged that hunting-oriented outfitters have suffered from a decline in the elk population, which he attributes to three processes: extreme drought, excessive hunting removal of female elk, and predation by carnivores including wolves. He added that the decline in elk numbers is ecosystem-wide and not just at the northern end of the GYE where most wolves reside. He encouraged the local economy to avoid pitting one outfitter against another, and to encourage hunting outfitters to supplement their offerings with wolf-viewing trips.

Wolves Are Highly Visible, Especially in Off Seasons

In the fall, winter and spring (less so in the summer), wolf-watchers contact wildlife tour businesses sprinkled around Yellowstone National Park or drive up the Lamar Valley. Vans and cars pulled off the road and people aiming cameras, spotting scopes and binoculars, is a good indication that watchable wildlife is near at hand.

Wolves are extremely visible-much more so than other large predators, said Ken Sinay of Bozeman, Mont., owner of Yellowstone Safari Co. Bears hibernate in the winter and mountain lions are notoriously reclusive.

“Wolves operate in an open landscape,” said Sinay. “They’re active and operate in a social group, so you can see interaction between individuals. They hunt in the open, where people can see them. A real key is that you can quickly identify them as individuals-white, black, brown, grey.”

All these factors combine to make the wolf eminently watchable, said Sinay, whose company has been offering river, automobile and backpacking tours in and around Yellowstone National Park for 15 years.

At a recent “Living With Wolves” conference in Sheridan, Wyo., Sinay said Wyoming’s economy generated $829 million in 2001 from wildlife watching. How much to attribute to wolves is hard to figure, he said, but for his business, wolves are a top draw for tourists.

That’s certainly true for Carl Swoboda, owner of “Safari Yellowstone,” a competing company based in Livingston, Mont.

“Wolves have allowed me to expand my business and to specialize in wolf watching,” Swoboda said.

Wolves can best be viewed in the park in winter, spring and late fall, creating steady business for what used to be known as the “shoulder” seasons, Swoboda said.

He prides himself on his company’s positive relationship with the National Park Service. Having a good relationship enables Swoboda to have better communication with park biologists regarding wolf pack locations and activities.