Volume 11, Issue 5: November 2004
Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? The Yellowstone Wolves
Outland, Science Journalist
Biology and Writing, Hawaii Pacific University
gray wolf. The
Yellowstone wolves were removed in 1926
and reintroduced in 1995. Source:
Oregon State University.
are so many images of fear symbolized by the wolf? From childhood, we
shiver as the shifty-eyed wolf terrorizes Little Red Riding Hood and the
three little pigs; Bram Stoker’s Dracula
opens with a wolf chase through a sinister forest; even the simple howl
of the wolf is a symbol of something menacing and dark. The aversion
towards wolves is easily understandable, but it causes a lack of
objectivity about the wolf’s real ecological role.
this fairy-tale attitude of fear has made the wolves of Yellowstone National Park such a long-standing public
issue, or maybe there is something more. After nearly a century of removing
and reintroducing the Yellowstone wolves, the question remains: How well do we
really understand this animal with such a storybook reputation?
First, a little history
The wolf issue has a history almost as long-lived as Yellowstone
itself. In 1914, Congress approved funding to eliminate the native gray
wolves from Yellowstone, fearing that elk and moose
populations might be wiped out. By 1926, the last of at least 136 wolves in
the park were killed, sometimes by controversial methods in themselves.
nearly 70 years since, wolves remained absent until the National Park
Service (NPS) proposed reintroducing them to Yellowstone under the Endangered Species
Act. After years of debates, Congress approved the plan and 41 Canadian
gray wolves were released in the park between 1995 and 1997.
The public speaks, and speaks again
the plan’s success, the boiling controversy has barely cooled. Before
the wolves were even released, the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF)
filed a lawsuit against the Interior Department, claiming that introducing
non-native wolves in Yellowstone using the Endangered Species Act was illegal.
In retaliation, the non-profit organization Defenders of Wildlife accused
the AFBF of wanting to kill the wolves, an accusation which AFBF vehemently
reintroduction is just as controversial among individuals as organizations.
On one hand, the wolves have garnered many eager followers, such as this
fan site dedicated to “wolf #10”: http://www.angelfire.com/nj/wolf/.
On the other hand, ranchers worry for their livestock and personal safety;
others are concerned that the elk might be killed off.
Ryan, a resident of Bigfork, Montana, told reporters in 2003,
“[The wolf] decimates the wildlife population wherever it goes. This
animal alone has the ability to jeopardize our entire way of life.”
seems there is little room for a middle ground.
the primary prey of wolves. Many
fear that wolves will decimate the Yellowstone
elk population. Source: Oregon State University.
Are the elk in danger of extinction?
primary complaint is that the wolves may endanger the elk population and
are going to run out of elk in somewhere between 5 and 10 years,”
said Gary Marbut, president of the Montana
Shooting Sports Association, in an interview in 2003. Before the
reintroduction, computer models predicted that the elk population could be
reduced by 8 to 20%.
not all scientists agree. Elk counts published in the January 2004 issue of
the Journal of Wildlife Management
reported that elk populations from 1995-2000 were more influenced by the
winters than the rising wolf population. In addition, a study in 2001
showed that Yellowstone moose whose offspring had been attacked by wolves
learned predator recognition within a single generation.
for predator avoidance are already in place, and fears of imminent
extinction may be unwarranted," said Joel Berger of the University of Nevada, the study’s lead
My, what a long reach you have
wide impact. Wolves
may affect the food chain all the way down to the tree level. Their presence changes elk feeding
behavior, which influences aspen sapling growth. Source: Oregon State University.
all the divided opinions, it is hard to find an objective analysis of just
how the wolves affect the environment, and whether they are needed or not.
Because their reintroduction is fairly recent, scientists are just
beginning to grasp the actual ecological role of the Yellowstone wolves.
1997, researchers including William Ripple from Oregon State University noticed that the aspen trees
in Yellowstone were dying. By counting the
rings from core samples, they found that the aspens have not regenerated
since the 1930’s—shortly after the wolves were eliminated.
by wolves can have a big impact on the ecosystem,” explained Ripple,
who has published several articles on the relationship between wolves and
aspen growth. “The wolf as a keystone predator will prey on elk, and
then the elk eat young aspen, cottonwood, and willow trees. Now with wolves
back in the system, the plants are flourishing more than before.”
collaborator Robert Beschta, also of Oregon State University, has found similar results in
the cottonwood trees. He discovered the effects of a process called
atrophic cascade, in which an organism at one end of the food chain affects
all other organisms in that ecosystem. This means that wolves not only
decrease the number of elk, but also change their behavior. Elk tend to
avoid areas frequented by wolves, which include aspen thickets. This may,
in turn, protect saplings from being eaten.
the wolves disappeared from Yellowstone, the saplings stopped growing up into mature
trees,” said Beschta.
trees in turn have a wide-reaching effect on the rest of the ecosystem.
With signs of plant health improving, Ripple was optimistic:
might see more birds, an increase in beavers, which would create more
ponds, which creates more habitats . . . there’s all types of
cascading effects that we’re starting to document with the
reintroduction of wolves.”
A new controversy: delisting the wolf
years later, the debate is far from over. A move to take the wolves off the
Endangered Species List has again stirred arguments. The state legislatures
of Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana claim they want federal
management of the wolf populations to be turned over to the state.
According to Rep. Jim Allen of Wyoming, the federal government
should “keep wolves inside Yellowstone because they don't have legal
jurisdiction to release wolves in Wyoming, only the state does.”
Yet, the proposal of Wyoming’s House Bill 229 and Montana’s HB 283 in early 2003
re-stirred public emotions that run much deeper than jurisdiction concerns.
supported the de-listing, which would allow anyone to shoot wolves outside
of Yellowstone at any time. Local ranchers
fear for their livestock. In 2000, Yellowstone wolves killed at least seven
cattle, 31 sheep, and five dogs. Some ranchers such as Alan Rosenbaum from Moran,
Wyoming feel intimidated by wolves living so close.
need protection for my family,” Rosenbaum said at a meeting to
discuss HB 229 last year. At the same meeting, rancher John Robinette said
that a wolf even attacked one of his dogs while his wife was walking it.
Several people complained that any wolves in the state are too many.
environmentalists present another argument. A study published in 2003 by
the Wildlife Conservation Society reported that wolves should not be
de-listed because they may not be fully recovered.
humans have tried to eliminate wolves in the past, there have been severe
consequences,” said Beschta, explaining the
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said that Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho must have approved
wolf-management plans before the wolf can be de-listed. Wyoming has yet to do so, and the
dispute carries on.
Where do we go from here?
hard to say why the wolf reintroduction is fought over so ardently by so
many. Maybe the wolf’s reputation for fear extends beyond literature;
maybe pictures of cute and fuzzy pups have triggered protective responses
from animal lovers. Either way, the real-life ecological role of wolves is
poorly comprehended and under-represented in public forums. In a complex
issue where accusations and insults fly all too freely, progress can only
be made on a common ground of education and mutual respect: respect
especially for an animal that never deserved to be so misunderstood.
and Suggested Reading
Official Website of Yellowstone National Park: http://www.nps.gov/yell/nature/animals/wolf/wolfrest.html
The Yellowstone Wolf Report Page: http://www.yellowstone-natl-park.com/wolf.htm
in Nature by Oregon State University: http://www.cof.orst.edu/wolves/
Journal of Young
Investigators. 2004. Volume Eleven.
Copyright © 2004 by Katrina Outland and JYI. All rights reserved.