Setting the record straight: Yellowstone's wolves

Posted Wednesday, January 20, 2016 - 8:14pm

It’s human nature to seek out balance, whether you call it the “pulse of the universe,” karma, or whatever nonsense David Avocado Wolfe wrote on Facebook this week. The want is only natural to hope things work themselves out. Lucky for us, there is indeed such a force at work in the natural world, we in biology call them “Keystone Species.”

A Keystone Species is an organism which by its behavior or nature has the greatest influence on the ecology of life which it surrounds itself with. As humans, we are indeed a unique keystone species, however, we self aggrandize to the point of thinking we know better when there are several just as important keystone species in nature which when removed, by us, the local ecology is thrown into havoc.

A prime example of us meddling with a keystone species and its immediate long-term effects is that of the Yellowstone Wolf population. Seventy years ago, under the direction of the federal government, the population of wolves in Yellowstone National Park were exterminated. Bowing to pressure by ranchers, who’s livelihood’s relied on the safety of their cattle, an entire species was displaced and a biome was taken to the brink of collapse.

As ecologists observed the fragile ecosystem surrounding arguably the greatest nature preserve in the world, they were startled to see steep declines in populations of both flora and fauna due to the increase in herbivores who preyed upon young plants. As the populations of elk, which are the dietary staple of wolves grew unimpeded, tree’s began to disappear as old ones died and fell, not being replaced by growing saplings. As tree’s disappeared, the soil which their roots held tight, began to erode, quickening the rivers and displacing native beaver populations. The far-reaching consequences of removing wolves extended not only to the biosphere but to the geosphere as well, altering river flows.

Luckily, sounder minds prevailed and the wolf was reintroduced to the region 20 years ago and the effect was almost immediate. As wolf’s fed on the rampaging elk, it not only lowered their irresponsible numbers, but changed their behavior as herds avoided open areas where the trees once stood. The tree’s began to return and with them a smoother river flow as their banks stopped eroding at an accelerated rate. An increase in tree’s provided habitat for songbirds which began a steady incline in growth. Smooth rivers and more wood welcomed back beaver populations which provided habitat for native fish, waterfowl, amphibians and reptiles which had been absent from the park for decades.

The coyote population which had grown substantially since the removal of wolves, began to shrink as they were outcompeted by the larger canine which boosted the populations of rabbits, mice and voles. The increase in rodents provided more food for birds of prey like hawks and eagles and small predators like foxes and badgers which increased in number. More bird populations such as scavenger ravens and crows quickly rose as carcasses from elk and other prey became more available. Even bears saw an increase as new shrubs, which had previously been consumed by elk, began producing berries.

The return of balance in nature played out before our very eyes, while still a vocal minority calls for their extinction. I’m not opposed to hunting, I have several wonderful memories of family outings into the mountains and the wonderful taste of home-made jerky. However, the fear and outrage expressed by so many who call themselves “conservationists” is overshadowed by that pesky little matter we here in our cult of the imagination call “evidence.” Speak softly and carry a big stick my zealots.

Filed under: lifestyles

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