The Cost of the Wild
Restoring an ecosystem to primitive grandeur is no simple matter in a complex world
Casting a Wider View
I still replay these events in my head, unable to believe I was so lucky as to witness this drama and see so many wolves.
Wolves in Yellowstone generate controversy. Although wolves were in Yellowstone when it was first discovered, they were hunted into local extinction by European settlers. The last wolf was deliberately killed in Yellowstone in 1926. From then until 1995 there were no wolf packs in Yellowstone.
In 1995 and 1996, a total of 31 wolves from two areas in Canada were reintroduced into Yellowstone in the Lamar Valley. The idea was to rebalance the ecosystem to a 19th-century state and put more wolves into a protected area. There are now 10 packs and approximately 100 wolves in Yellowstone. The effects of reintroduction are ongoing.
One of the more obvious changes is a decline in the elk population. The herd also tends to stay in smaller groups than previously. Fewer elk overall means that the cottonwoods, willows and aspens along the rivers now form denser, healthier stands because their shoots are not eaten to the ground by over-abundant elk.
Beaver are increasing, damming up rivers, creating new meadows and providing new habitats for songbirds and fish. Coyotes are hard-hit by the wolves, which kill them as competitors. The coyote population has dropped precipitously, since those that are not killed tend to avoid areas with wolves. Because coyotes used to suppress fox populations, foxes are expected to be more common. All kinds of scavengers, from ravens to bears, have more carcasses to eat. Finally bison—which only a few wolf packs have learned to kill—are still growing in number but now wander outside of the park in larger numbers. Perhaps they are avoiding wolves too.
Where’s the controversy? Ask the ranchers in Paradise Valley, just outside the park, what they think of the reintroduction. “How would you feel if somebody plonked down a pack of wolves in your backyard?” they say, with good reason. Some have been on the land since the 1800s and never had a “wolf problem” before reintroduction. They fear for their children, grandchildren, pets and livestock.
These ranchers make their living by raising cattle or sheep. It is hard work but involves an independent lifestyle they love. Unfortunately, wolves do not distinguish between domestic livestock and wild ungulates, except that they may have figured out that domestic livestock are conveniently fenced in and cannot run as far. Compensation is available for ranchers who lose animals but is difficult to qualify for. You have to find the kills right away, and there has to be enough of each animal left to show the pattern of consumption typical of wolves, not some other predator.
I was told a story—possibly exaggerated—of a woman who raises sheep. One night wolves got into her pasture and killed 35 animals. Most were so thoroughly consumed she could not get compensation. Sadly, within a few days, every living ewe in that rancher’s herd aborted because of stress. She lost an entire year’s production and income.
Wolves are also linked to bison. The Yellowstone bison herd had shrunk to a mere 25 individuals before the area was declared a park and protected. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, bison were aggressively hunted in the west, partly for food and partly as a strategy to deprive the Plains Indians—considered enemies of European settlers—of the animals that provided much of their food. Bison still have great symbolic power for the tribes.
Today, the bison herd is 3,500–4,000 individuals. The reintroduction of wolves has checked their numbers somewhat, but once a bison is full-grown it is too large for wolves or grizzlies to take. Bison leave the park in search of grazing, especially in bad winters. Paradise Valley—the same area the wolves go to—is at a lower elevation than the park and gets less snow. It is an ideal winter range for bison and for cattle.