Wolves in Yellowstone: An Ecology Lesson

I have always been a biologist at heart. When I was a little girl I would constantly be looking at bugs and plants, and learning as much as I could about the world around me. I understood at a very young age how the natural world works together – everything having a niche in which it belonged. You throw one thing out of whack, and the balance is thrown off around it. I’m not sure why other people don’t understand this, because it seems like perfect, common sense that even a child could figure out, so why do people continue to do things like hunt the whales to extinction or organize rattlesnake roundups?

One example is the wolves in the United States. Once upon a time, not very long ago, people began to populate the wild areas of the northwestern United States.  Ranching was the reason for the move – Wide Open Spaces and untouched grazing. It was a paradise for ranchers. Except for the wolves. Every once in a while a wolf would find a nice fat calf as an easy meal. Result? The ranchers started killing wolves to protect their livestock. Then the government got involved. The government hired trappers in an attempt to annihilate the wolves. Literally. That was their goal – kill off all the wolves. What good did wolves do, anyway? We didn’t NEED wolves here. All they did was kill innocent livestock and wildlife that WE wanted to kill and eat. So the government answer was to kill off the competition.  Bears were also deemed a nuisance as well, and were also on the trapper hit list, but mainly because they eat the fish and crops that people were eating too. Wolves were extirpated from most of the United States is a matter of a few decades.

The plan to eradicate the wolves backfired however, and the best place to see the results of that backfire was in Yellowstone National Park. The land is still (pretty much) untouched and natural, and is a great place for grad students to do research 🙂

See, over the years that there were no wolves in the park, a lot of things changed. The elk population skyrocketed. So much so that in the winter the elk were having to be fed hay by the park rangers so that there weren’t massive die-offs from starvation. The massive elk population was killing the aspen trees by grazing them down to nothing, preventing new forest from replacing the old trees and fire-killed trees. Elk were also killing other species of trees by rubbing their antlers on them so much that it was ripping the bark from the trees and allowing insects the chance to infest the trees. Elk were grazing everything down to nothing because of their massive numbers.

In 1995 when 14 wolves were trapped in Alberta, Canada and brought to Yellowstone National Park, it was deemed an “experimental population” and they were radio-collared and watched closely to see what would happen.

Here is a quick video that can describe it much better than I can, and the sound of the wolves howling always gives me chills, so I love this video.

While Hubby and I were on vacation in Yellowstone, we saw, personally, the changes that the wolves had made.

Yellowstone May 2014 1246

These pines have clear damage by elk from scraping the velvet off of their antlers every spring. Notice the dead tree in the foreground which also has the same scars from the elk. This tree was likely killed by insects boring into the soft phloem underneath.

Since the return of the wolf, the elk have started avoiding certain areas where they were easy prey, allowing the aspen trees a second chance to grow and repopulate. We actually saw some areas of aspen trees that were fenced off, and the area appeared to be a research site to study different dynamics of the aspens. (Unfortunately when we saw it, we were on our way to the doctor’s office because of my back, so we didn’t really stop to get a closer look.)

One of the areas that the elk seemed to avoid was Lamar Valley. We saw hundreds of bison, bears, and pronghorn, but no elk.

The most beautiful place in the park - Lamar Valley. Herds of bison and antelope throughout the valley.
The most beautiful place in the park – Lamar Valley. Herds of bison and antelope throughout the valley.

Other species have also benefited from the return of the wolf, like the grizzly and black bears.  For example, they feed on the left-overs of wolf kills (bears aren’t nearly as fast as wolves, so it is much harder for them to chase down prey), and this has led to an increase in the bear populations as well, after the government trappers attempted to wipe them out too.

"Scar Face" feeding on a wolf kill
“Scar Face” feeding on a wolf kill

Today, the wolf population is still studied by the park service; however due to budget cuts, most (if not all) research is conducted on a voluntary basis.  Because of this, things like helicopters are no longer used to dart the wolves because it’s not in the budget. Instead, the wolves are trapped or netted first. This is increasing the amount of human interaction the wolves have, and making them nervous around people where they once had little fear.  That means that often, when you see a wolf in the park, it will run away instead of letting you marvel in all their splendor.

Ranger Rick performs his wolf surveys voluntarily, because the wolf monitoring program budget has been cut.
Ranger Rick performs his wolf surveys voluntarily, because the wolf monitoring program budget has been cut.

Additionally, maintenance of the radio equipment has declined.

Clear view of his radio collar
Clear view of his radio collar

The silver male wolf that we watched on our last morning in the park had a radio collar, but the battery was dead and it was no longer emitting a signal. Because of this, he could not be identified or tracked, and all the potential data that he was producing were going unrecorded. This means that we don’t know if he is part of a pack or if he is a “lone wolf” (sorry, I had to). We don’t know if he has sired any pups, contributing to the growth of the population. We don’t know where his territory or range are, what his diet is, if he is healthy, or any other multitude of ecological questions, that at least for now, must go unanswered.

This is a wonderful story, but it has only been half written. As the wolf populations continue to rise in Yellowstone and other areas outside of the park, clashes with the human population is inevitable.  The state of Idaho was attempting to start legalizing wolf hunts again, right after they were brought back from the brink of extinction in the United States. Bowing to public pressure, they have decided that they won’t start wolf hunts this year. The wolves are safe. For now.

As a biologist, I believe that we need to learn as much as possible about the wolves in order to save them again. Learning their habits, territories, ranges, diets, and even personalities can teach us so much and help us understand how to prevent human or livestock interactions. Would something as simple as adding guard dogs or guard donkeys/mules (yes, that’s a thing) to the herds be enough to keep wolves away? How many TRUE wolf kills of livestock actually happen per year? What is the economic “loss” caused by wolves?

Personally, I don’t think that the ranchers have a reason to despise the wolves, because the ranchers, like any other business owner, should have insurance.  And insurance pays out for damages/losses, So they don’t have a REAL reason to want the wolves gone.

As Apex Predators, wolves affect everything around them. They are vital for the health of the ecosystems in which they evolved. This means that the other wildlife are healthier as a result. Bigger, stronger, and healthier elk, deer, bison, and antelope survive while the wolves cull the herds of the sick and weak individuals.  Humans need to stop trying to “manage” the wildlife and just leave it be. It will balance out on its own, and be healthier than if we decide which individuals are killed and which populations are “too high”.

If you want to see wildlife with extremely limited human interference, watch this video on the wolves of Chernobyl. I watched this and it made me want to live there. So there is radiation, big deal. I can wear a respirator for the rest of my life if that means I can live in a place that is a wildlife paradise and no humans will bother me.  In the video, they determined that the wolf population is healthy, and no higher or lower than in other wolf habitat areas, meaning they don’t need to be managed – their numbers didn’t “get out of control” without human intervention. They didn’t “eat all of the deer” in the area. The ecosystem is healthy without human interference. Just like it was before we evolved – the world doesn’t need humans to take care of it. The world just needs humans not to destroy it.

Sunset in Lamar Valley
Sunset in Lamar Valley
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4 thoughts on “Wolves in Yellowstone: An Ecology Lesson”

    1. Thanks! I know I’m not the only one who has discussed these points, but maybe I can hopefully pass on some information to people who wouldn’t necessarily hear it from other sources. I should probably right about Rattlesnake Roundups and coyote bounties also, to pass on the information that people need to hear!!

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