Students Corner

The Reintroduction of Species

This month, as a part of the Colorado Wolf Restoration and Management Plan, ten wolves were reintroduced into the western region of Colorado State. Amidst much controversy, the plan was confirmed for implementation via state ballot in 2020. Reintroducing lost species seems like a perfect solution to the man-made destruction of nature, but there are always two, if not more, sides to every plan. What exactly are the advantages and disadvantages of reintroducing wolves or other species?

The reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone is one of the most well-known instances of species reintroduction. Due to the concern of ranchers and farmers in the West for their livestock, who were sometimes killed by wolves in states like Montana and Wyoming, wolves were hunted nearly to extinction. With few wolves, grazing animal populations proliferated and the volume of vegetation decreased because large groups of deer and elk would overeat all of the plants in their habitats. Decreased vegetation resulted in consequences such as increased soil erosion, less biodiversity, and less uptake of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

A plan to bring back wolves to Yellowstone National Park came to fruition in 1995, and the effects were widespread. Biodiversity began to increase as many species, both plant and animal, returned to the region. Many of the issues mentioned above started to decrease in intensity, as the ecosystem began to rebalance itself. Wolves are a keystone species, which means that they largely define the structure and health of an ecosystem, often considered extremely vital. While reintroducing species sounds like a perfect plan for reversing the damage humans have caused to ecosystems, there are several things to consider about these kinds of plans:

  1. How will reintroducing a species that existed a while ago affect an ecosystem that has already adapted to existing without it?

This may not pose as big of an issue for the reintroduction of wolves, which haven’t been absent from their ecosystems for long. However, more drastic changes to the species composition of a region may have unintended effects. Discussions about figuring out how to revive and reintroduce the woolly mammoth to the present-day environment rest on claims that the species will be able to help combat climate change. Ecosystems, which are constantly changing and adapting to their conditions, may be significantly disrupted by the return of a once-important species. Reintroducing an animal or plant may serve to break down the ecosystem even more than before, and it is difficult to predict exactly what will happen when species return.

     2. How do we establish a relationship between humans and animals, specifically wolves, when they are inhabiting the same space?

Wolves were originally hunted close to extinction because of threats to human-owned livestock. The decision to reintroduce wolves was controversial partly due to the protests of ranchers in the western states of the U.S., who were worried that bringing back wolves would pose danger to their own animals. As humans continue to develop land and move into “wilder” spaces, there is the question of how to regulate relationships between humans and wolves as they occupy the same land. How do we balance the best interests of humans and wolves while trying not to sacrifice the needs of one or the other? The debate of reintroducing species often becomes one of conservation versus livelihood.

     3. Is reintroducing species an example of too much human meddling in nature?

While some are big supporters of species reintroduction as a way to make amends with nature and all the harm that humans have caused to it, some believe that it is just another step too far into controlling nature. The debate begs the question of whether humans have the right to bring back species that have already gone extinct, especially in the case of the woolly mammoth. At what point do humans have the right to restore the ecosystem? Should we let nature take its course or deliberately try to fix what we have damaged? Some people have been thinking about reintroducing species that went extinct due to human activity versus species that went extinct naturally. 

There are many questions to consider when weighing the costs and benefits of reintroducing species to ecosystems. How much control do humans have over fixing the harm that we have caused, and how can we really know what consequences our actions will continue to have?


Written by Carmen Marshall ‘25

Photo by Thomas Bonometti on Unsplash