The Wolves of Yellowstone: Part 3

In case the hunters have not figure it out yet - Wolf Reintroduction into the Yellowstone Ecosystem, is not solely about elk hunting opportunities.

An interesting article on the effects of wolf reintroduction looks at the fact that elk numbers have decreased after the reintroduction of wolves, probably as a result of the wolves. I never said that wolves would not decrease elk populations. And I doubt that any knowledgeable wolf biologist would suggest that elk numbers would not decline. In fact most biologists expected they would, because of the wolves. It was expected. And, I for one am not ducking that fact.

But, the reduction in the size of the northern elk heard can also be attributed to the change from a moderate to liberal hunting harvest policy. And there has also been an increase in predation by a growing population of grizzly bears. But, the answers to why the elk herd has declined in recent years, are both elusive and often wrong, say scientists, citing the sheer complexity of the northern range ecosystem.

One of the latest studies has suggested that the northern elk herd decreased in numbers due to poor nutrition of adult elk and lower calf survival rates in that area. These are two unexpected results of the wolf reintroduction; which is to say that the scientists are still learning something from this study. Interestingly there appeared to be no connection between poor nutrition and lower calf survival rates. Poor nutrition was attributed to the elk being harassed more by wolves (which just makes sense). And lower calf survival was attributed to lower progesterone levels. You can read more about this study - and many more articles relating to the wolf re-introduction here:

I, for one, have never suggested that wolf reintroduction would not result in lower elk numbers. In fact, I believed that wolf reintroduction would reduce the size of the elk herds, because wolves prey on elk. But, if we are talking about naturally balanced ecosystems, or those as natural as we can now hope to repair them to, then reducing the elk herds is a good thing, because there is no doubt that there are more elk in the ecosystem than it originally developed to hold.

The overly abundant elk herds are being kept at artificially high numbers, due in part to the National Elk Refuge feeding program in the winter, and the ability of the elk in the north to migrate out of the park and onto private land, where ranchers have maintained, improved or created hayfields and pastures suited to both elk and cattle, they also have large supplies of hay, in the form of haystacks for winter use, which the elk readily take advantage of. Take away the artificially maintained or created pasture and hayfields and haystacks, and the feeding program of the elk refuge, and elk numbers will decrease - due to starvation in large numbers. Such widespread elk deaths could lead to the appearance of deadly microorganisms, and the spread of diseases. So, no one is willing to take such a step, and I am not advocating it.

For many hunters, someplace between the time they first took up hunting, or learned to hunt, and where they are now, they have forgotten that hunting is a privilege, not a right, and that without good conservation measures, in this case total ecosystem management, we may not have either the habitat to support the game we love to hunt, or we may not have the game we love to hunt on that habitat, or both.

You would think that we would have learned from the past, when in the early 1900’s, due to unregulated hunting, we brought the populations of many game animals (white-tailed deer, elk, bison, turkey, pheasants, almost all waterfowl species) to the brink of extinction. In fact, about 100 years later, some of those species have still not recovered (wolves, bison, pheasants, swans and some species of ducks). At that point in time it was not so much the habitat that was in jeopardy, it was the game. But, without the habitat, the game cannot or will not survive, and now it is the habitat that we need to worry about. I’m referring to healthy habitat, brought about by balanced predator/prey relationships, and keeping prey species in balance with the carrying capacity of the land - as in its forage base for large herbivores. There is no question that the trees, shrubs, forbs, grasses, sedges etc. of he Yellowstone Ecosystem – are nowhere near as healthy as they once were – due in part to the removal of wolves in the ecosystem back as far as 1926 – 86 years ago.

To use the argument that the "trophic cascading" hypothesis (the loss or reduction of one species leads to the loss or reduction of another species) as a reason to justify removing wolves from the Yellowstone Ecosystem is not relevant to this post. I would suggest that in the case of the Yellowstone ecosystem, not enough time has elapsed after the removal of wolves from the ecosystem in 1926, to be able to tell if the loss of the wolves in the ecosystem than lead to declines or extinction of other species later. Even if this is not true, recent studies have shown that many plant species (that elk use as forage) that were formerly found in Yellowstone, are either reduced or in decline as a result of the removal of the wolves and the increase in elk numbers, almost 100 years ago.

If we look at the first portion of this article, we see that in fact, because wolves harass elk in northern Yellowstone, the elk have poor nutrition – which means they are either not eating as much, or they are eating different species, or they are feeding in different areas, or any combination of the three. This in turn suggests that some plant species that the elk were foraging on, are no longer being eaten by the elk. And we can conclude from that, that those plant species are either increasing, or not declining. Thus, there appears to have been a "cascading effect".

How About No Wolves?

Let us look at this from another aspect. Let us assume that the wolves do not affect elk numbers enough to allow any type of plant species to re-establish itself, prosper or stop declining in Yellowstone Park or the Yellowstone Ecosystem. The wolves did not have a secondary affect the flora in any way at all. The only thing they did was take down young, old or diseased elk, or other elk for some reason. If, for no other reason than the fact that they are culling the elk herd, to even a minor extent (hunters claim wolves are taking a lot of elk each year), would not that be enough to warrant keeping elk in the ecosystem? Or, wouldn’t the ability of park goers to see wolves, hear them howling, and photograph wolves, in a natural setting, in the most beautiful geothermal area of the world – be enough to justify keeping the wolves in the ecosystem? Would not the fact that there is now, or will be in the future, a balanced predator/prey relationship between the elk and wolves, be enough to justify keeping wolves in the ecosystem? I think the answer to those questions is a resounding yes.

Does wolf re-introduction have to be about total ecosystem balance, in order to justify having them in the Yellowstone Ecosystem? I think the answer to that question is no.

Should the wants and desires of a few very vocal and outspoken hunters and ranchers - outweigh the wants and desires of the United States public citizens as a whole, or should the wants and needs of the greater non-hunting public decide whether or not there are wolves in the Yellowstone ecosystem?

I’ve been in Yellowstone Park and the surrounding areas several times, starting as far back as the 1960’s. I’ve been there before there were any wolves there, when you could not find a bald eagle or a sandhill crane or trumpeter swan, and grizzly bears were abundant – in the garbage dumps. But, elk were hard to locate. And I’ve been there when there were lots of elk, a few grizzly and black bears, and a few wolves. I think the park, and the experience of visiting it, are enhanced by every species that has made a comeback or been re-introduced there. For many people, the animals of the area are what Yellowstone Park is all about, and that should be a good enough reason for keeping wolves in the ecosystem.

The park, and the surrounding ecosystem, are not there just for hunters. Yellowstone is for everyone, and for all the animal and plant species that belong there.

If you get a chance to visit Yellowstone Park, I’m sure you will enjoy seeing, hearing or photographing the wolf packs there. Do it soon, before it is gone.

If you have a positive Yellowstone story, I urge you to post it in the comments box.

God bless,


Older Post

Wolves of the Yellowstone Ecosystem, Part 2

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Did Someone Kill the 1 1/2 year Old Black Bear named Hope