Yellowstone Wolves


(This 1197th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on March 2, 2014.)


Wolf pack members attack and kill an interloper

Photo by Chris Conti


Kenmore East High School and University at Buffalo science and environmental education teacher Joe Allen also leads summer trips to Yellowstone Park to observe the wolves there. In the past he has taken university undergraduates but this year's trip is for UB alumni and other interested adults. From the photos of past trips that Joe showed me, this will surely be a wonderful opportunity to observe these interesting animals. The details about this July 28-August 7 trip are on Allen's website.


As a byproduct of his Yellowstone visits, over the years Joe has had a wonderful opportunity to see the effects of the reintroduction of wolves to the park. The last wolves of their original population in Yellowstone had been killed by 1927, when it was federal policy to eliminate all wolves. Then between 1995 and 1997, a total of 41 wolves were brought from Alberta, British Columbia and northern Montana, acclimated for three months and then released in various park areas.


Today the National Park Service estimates that there are 400-450 wolves in the Yellowstone ecosystem. That may seem like a lot of wolves but it is still only one wolf for every eight square miles of parkland. And that same park holds 10,000 to 20,000 elk each summer.


Okay, the wolf reintroduction has clearly been successful. What have been the results?


Joe says that they have been very positive. Before the wolves were returned, he told me, the elk had made significant negative changes to many park areas through overgrazing, especially in the grasslands along streams. The streams themselves were even affected: with the vegetation so reduced there was more erosion.


Here is what outdoor educator and photographer Jeff Wagner has to say about these effects: "Since wolves have returned to Yellowstone, the elk and deer are stronger, the aspens and willows are healthier and the grasses taller. For example, when wolves chase elk during the hunt, the elk are forced to run faster and farther. Since the elk cannot remain stationary for too long, aspens and willows in one area are not heavily grazed, and therefore can fully recover between migrations. As with the rest of the country, coyote populations were nearly out of control before the wolves returned. Now, the coyotes have been out-competed and essentially reduced by 80 percent in areas occupied by wolves. With fewer coyotes hunting small rodents, raptors like the eagle and osprey have more prey and are making a comeback. The endangered grizzly bears successfully steal wolf kills more often than not, thus having more food to feed their cubs. In essence, we have learned that by starting recovery at the top with predators like wolves, the whole system benefits. A wild wolf population actually makes for a stronger, healthier and more balanced ecosystem."


Reader Larry Cappiello recently called my attention to a YouTube video "How Wolves Change Rivers," that extends this case.


Interestingly, Aldo Leopold, at the time a federal employee charged with killing wolves, wrote in his famous 1949 A Sand County Almanac that predators control ecosystems. He advocated protecting predators many decades ahead of his game management colleagues.


I saw a related problem on Isle Royale in Lake Superior where for years the wolves and moose were in balance. But before my visit in 1996 the wolf population had crashed: a single aged Alpha female was preventing reproduction in the pack. The result was that everywhere on the island the mountain ash trees had been stripped of foliage by the moose and the moose were now starving. Today I understand that the problem is still worse and bringing in more wolves is being actively considered.


Unfortunately as Joe points out, wolf introduction has divided communities in and around Yellowstone. Although the lines are usually drawn between ranchers and hunters who hate wolves and conservation activists who love them, some ranchers cross over, especially when conservation groups provide compensation programs that offset their cattle losses. As wildlife manager Hank Fischer says, "When people start working together, we find that there are many ways for wolves and livestock grazing to coexist."


Sadly, however, today those remain the exceptions. That YouTube video drew negative as well as positive reviews and Joe has to pick carefully the accommodations at which to house his visitors.-- Gerry Rising