The Yellowstone Wolves: Reflections on Objectivity in Science Education

A particularly memorable teaching moment for me came during a camping trip to Yellowstone National Park in late June 2015 with a group of St. Louis middle school students. We hiked up to Trout Lake in Lamar Valley during our second day in the field, and I took the opportunity to teach about trophic cascades. I wanted to help the students build a deeper appreciation of the place they were visiting, the same place where wolves were re-introduced in 1995.

I had never taught about the Yellowstone wolves before, but I knew the story well. After wolves were extirpated from the Yellowstone area (and the greater United States) in the 1920s, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) fell into disaster, with an increased elk population out-competing many other organisms for valuable resources and reducing the overall biodiversity through a top-down trophic cascade. Without one of its apex predators to keep the elk population in check, the GYE was in complete disarray until a team of conservationists reintroduced wolves in 1995—almost seventy years after their removal.

After helping my students learn about trophic cascades, I read them “Thinking Like a Mountain,” Aldo Leopold’s illustration of the importance of predators. We discussed the powerful effects that wolves have on the ecosystem, and how the populations of aspen, willow, cottonwood, beavers, grizzly bears, birds of prey, and countless other organisms have been thriving since wolf reintroduction. Moreover, due to the increased vegetation along the streams and rivers, there has even been less bank erosion and much healthier riparian habitats since wolf reintroduction. Wolves have rebalanced the ecosystem.

The middle-schoolers seemed to be awestruck by the role that wolves play in the GYE. For much of the hike down from Trout Lake, the sounds of nature were accompanied only by a contemplative silence from the group, as they struggled to grasp the significance of what they had just discovered. I felt thankful for the opportunity to help a group of students think more deeply about their own connection to nature, and grateful to the Yellowstone wolves for providing us with such a romantic narrative through which to inspire that deeper thinking.

The only issue, I would soon discover, was that the story isn’t necessarily true. Over the next few months, as I tried to recreate the magic of Lamar Valley for other student groups, I was repeatedly confronted with scientific research that supported what was, to me, the ultimate letdown: the wolves of Yellowstone aren’t really saviors of the ecosystem. As it turns out, many of the relationships observed between wolves, elk, aspen, and riparian habitats were largely correlational and slightly exaggerated, and many of the experimental attempts to recreate those relationships failed to do so. As researcher David Mech eloquently described in his article about “sanctifying the wolf,”1 the media took a few studies based primarily on circumstantial evidence and blew them entirely out of proportion. The result was an inaccurate, but widespread, “sanctification” of the once-vilified large predator.

This realization was a difficult one for me to accept, in part because I had framed an entire student experience around a false pretense, but also because of my own attachment to the idea of the all-powerful wolf. It was important to me that I embrace the scientific correction, but it was hard to get beyond my own biases. Still, I was aware that, in addition to allowing humans to prematurely celebrate stability in a still-fragile ecosystem, blindly buying into the wolf story undermines perhaps the most important and distinctive ethical standard that science has to offer: objectivity. Not only does scientific progress depend on the idea that knowledge is open to revision in light of new evidence, but that concept also has extraordinary implications for us as human beings. It can inform our moral understandings in profound ways by valuing objective acceptance and curiosity over preconceived opinions and beliefs. The intent of science education is not to tell people what to think, but rather to give them a framework for thinking that encourages investigation. By removing our subjective biases, we open our minds to the world. This framework cultivates curiosity not just about nature, but also about other ways of thinking, points of view, and lifestyles. Teaching objectivity leads not just to good science, but also to empathy.

Admittedly, these are my own subjective opinions, but it is for these reasons that I strive to reward objectivity in students. More than inspiration, or a growth in leadership, or even a desire to save the planet, if a student finishes a TSS program with a desire to understand things from a place of non-judgment, as good scientists do, I feel as if I have made a difference. While stories of the natural world play an important role in conveying the wonder of science to the general public, we as storytellers must balance the pull of a story with the immeasurable value of scientific objectivity. The story of Yellowstone’s wolves failed to strike this balance, and I, in telling it, did a disservice to both the students and the wolves.

I had a chance to get the wolf story right this fall with Polaris Expeditionary Learning School, a small group of 6th through 10th graders from Colorado Springs. My priority this time was to teach science. Before our field research day, I presented the students with articles2 presenting data in support of and against the idea of a wolf-mediated trophic cascade in Yellowstone. I gave them time to analyze and synthesize the research, and helped them use this information to formulate their own research question to investigate. The students leapt at the chance to help answer these relevant, albeit divisive, ecological questions. More importantly, they not only objectively accepted all of the data they were presented with, but the contradicting evidence ignited their curiosity.

During our research, we meandered off-trail around Blacktail Butte looking at animal signs in different plant communities. Towards the end of the day we found what appeared to be an old wolf den. It was possible, I told my students, that this den had been used earlier in the summer. We sat down around the den and mused about the significance of the place we were in.

One student commented on the intimacy of the experience, saying that even more than seeing an actual wolf on the roadside, seeing a recently inhabited den allowed for a sincere and empathic look into the lives of wolves. Another student conveyed the sacred feeling evoked by the setting, saying that even without any prior knowledge of wolves or ideas about the influence they have, one can’t help but feel a certain reverence toward them. Most of the students felt grateful for the fact that somewhere, humans can coexist peacefully with large predators without becoming territorial or vindictive; the den on Blacktail Butte became symbolic of that ideal. For the students, perhaps most important was the knowledge that their experience was made possible by people who care about the natural world for more than what it provides humans, that seeing nature for what it is, objectively, not for what we have made it through our stories, is a valuable experience in itself.

1. Mech, David L. Is science in danger of sanctifying the wolf? Biological Conservation 150(2012): 143-149.

2. Kauffman, Matthew J. et al. Are wolves saving Yellowstone’s aspen? A landscape-level test of a behaviorally mediated trophic cascade. Ecology 91.9(2010): 2742-2755; Marshall, Kristin N. et al. Stream hydrology limits recovery of riparian ecosystems after wolf reintroduction. Proceedings of the Royal Society of Biological Sciences 280(2013): 20122977; Ripple, William J. and Robert L. Beschta. Wolves and the Ecology of Fear: Can Predation Risk Structure Ecosystems? BioScience 54.8(2004): 755-766; Hebblewhite, Mark et al. Human Activity Mediates a Trophic Cascade Caused by Wolves. Ecology 86.6(2005): 2135-2144.

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