Yellowstone Wolves

Yellowstone Wolves Doug Smith, Yellowstone wolfpack, public domain via Wikimedia


To use the Internet to explore relationships between habitats and species (specifically the gray wolf and those species with which it must coexist) as well as the effect of physical and human forces on living things and their environment.


Before the 1930s, gray wolves freely roamed the western United States. As ranching began to prosper throughout the region, these predatory wolves became a threat to livestock. Efforts on the part of ranchers and federal agencies to eradicate this threat eventually led to the endangerment of the wolves.

The Endangered Species Act, passed in 1973, required federal agencies to develop recovery plans for wolves and other threatened wildlife. However, these programs drew strong opposition from area ranchers, who feared that wolf reintroduction would threaten livestock.  This investigation uses the conflict between ranchers and wolves to explore the relationships between living things and their environments, and the effects of physical and human forces on the natural world.

Planning Ahead

Preview the sites used in this lesson, especially 1995 Reintroduction of Wolves in Yellowstone.


Begin your investigation by having students study the animals on Yellowstone National Park's Wildlife page.

Divide the class into groups and assign an animal to each group. As they read, have them write down the needs of the animal about which they are reading (food, space, water, air, shelter). Have them list these in a table with the name of the animal on top.

Have each group share their table with the class. Then, use the tables to compare the animals and note those that have similar needs. Discuss how they might compete with one another for the resources they need to live.

After the class has done this, tell them that they will now focus on a specific animal, the gray wolf.


For this part of the investigation, students will use the 1995 Reintroduction of Wolves in Yellowstone resource from My Yellowstone.

Begin by reading the third paragraph aloud: "Bringing back the wolves struck a nerve among ranchers along the park’s boundaries who feared the wolves would wander out of the park and kill their livestock. But wildlife biologists felt the wolves played a key role in the Yellowstone ecosystem, including controlling the elk population, which had ballooned in the wolves’ absence and wreaked havoc on the range."

Ask students to keep these words in mind as they explore this article. As they do so, they should note in their journal the evidence that they find of natural forces and human forces that have an effect on a wolf's survival.

Follow this exploration with a discussion of these questions:

  • What is the relationship of coyotes, elk, and cattle to wolves? 
  • Describe the varying degrees to which each relies on human protection. 

To begin the next part of the investigation, have students refer to their notes from the previous activity. Ask students to generate a list of the conflicts that might arise if humans and wolves were to share the same environment. Have students think of a potential solution for each conflict.

After each student has made a list, divide the class into groups and have each group explore the Conflict Yellowstone Wolves website. This Web-based activity is part of Planet Earth, a joint project of the Poway Unified School District in California and The Museum of Television. It follows the WebQuest concept format. Please note that this activity is old and many of the links on the page don't work. However, many of the links do still work. You should check them before having your students do this activity.

In this activity, students analyze the Rocky Mountain Gray Wolf problem and draw their own conclusion regarding: Should the wolves in Yellowstone National Park be removed?

This is an inquiry activity that places students in the position to ask great questions, develop new relationships, and take a stand on a current issue.


The plight of the gray wolf in Yellowstone is still very much in doubt. From a scientific standpoint, the reintroduction has been successful. From a social and legal standpoint, however, conflicts and controversies remain unresolved.

Students explored many of these in the Conflict Yellowstone Wolves activity. To help students focus their thinking about this issue around the ideas in the related benchmarks, you could conduct a debate or mock trial in which environmental interests are pitted against commercial interests.


The American Museum of Natural History's Biodiversity Counts, an online science project that gets middle-school students out of the classroom and into the field to study biodiversity at a site near their school. Students do the same work as American Museum of Natural History scientists including the following: make scientific observations; record data and collect evidence; keep field journals; identify and classify evidence; analyze data; publish work for peer review; and make exhibitions of work for the general public.

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Lesson Details

Grades Themes Project 2061 Benchmarks National Science Standards State Standards