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Mar 3, 2009

I’ve just returned from a week in Yellowstone, observing the wolves in the beautiful winter landscape.  Many of us at Care2 have helped support the reintroduction of the wolves, so I’m pleased to be able to give the following update.

 

I was able to observe 15 wolves, mostly from the Agate and Druid packs in and around the Lamar valley.  Yellowstone WolfMost of the time the wolves were a mile or more away and we’d view them through high powered spotting scopes as they rested or pursued elk.  However, on one occasion we were fortunate to see a black male wolf on an elk kill just off the road near the Mammoth hot springs.  Looking into the eyes of this amazing creature as he stared back was an incredible experience.

 

Today, there are approximately 120 wolves in Yellowstone, and perhaps a total of 1,500 in Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, and now Colorado.  That’s remarkable considering there were none prior to 1995.  The last of the original Yellowstone wolves were extirpated by park officials back in 1926.   They were considered a predatory nuisance and detriment to the elk population, while lacking the touristic appeal that saved the grizzly bears.  It took many years of fighting and lawsuits to get them reintroduced, in great part due to the efforts of our friends at Defenders of Wildlife.   In 1995 and 1996, 31 wolves (from Canada) were released in Yellowstone.

 

Beyond the sheer number of wolves now living in the region, the wolf reintroduction has been a fantastic success for the whole ecosystem.  Because wolves are a keystone species, their impact is widespread.    I hadn’t seen the wolves since my last trip to Yellowstone in 2001, but it’s clear the entire ecosystem is now healthier, and many of the imbalances caused by 70 years without wolves are being righted.

 

Ten interesting things I learned about the impact of the wolf reintroduction:

  1. Since the reintroduction, the number of elk in Yellowstone has declined, though not precipitously. Some reduction is due to wolf predation, but the population of elk was, arguably, too high to begin with as elk had few natural predators.
  2. Because the elk are more skittish now (they can’t lounge around in the open anymore without inviting interest from wolves), the willow, cottonwood and other shrubs they’ve eaten/decimated for decades are beginning to make a comeback.
  3. The increase in willow and other tree saplings is helping to boost the moose population, along with the number of beavers and muskrat.
  4. The wolves have reduced the coyote population considerably, which means there are now more rodents for badgers and some birds of prey which are making a comeback.
  5. The reduction in coyote numbers has also helped to boost the population of pronghorn antelope (whose young are particularly susceptible to coyotes in their first few weeks of life).
  6. The outcry from ranchers has subsided somewhat from the fevered pitch in 1995 (though wolves are killing sheep and cattle outside the park, the government kills these “nuisance” wolves, and ranchers are reimbursed for their loss).  Elk hunters are currently some of the most vocal opponents of the wolves.
  7. Wolves tend do well during the winter, as their broad paws allow them to move (relatively) easily through the snow while their prey gets bogged down / weak from the harsh winters.
  8. This past year was particularly hard on the wolves as disease (probably distemper) killed numerous pups and territory disputes lead to a number of wolves killing other wolves.
  9. Wolves from Yellowstone/Wyoming and Idaho are beginning to spread, sometimes wandering  hundreds of miles, including south to Colorado and Utah.
  10. When wolves were temporarily de-listed from the Endangered Species Act in 2008, at least 130 were killed (nearly 10% of the total), as hunters jumped at the opportunity to kill wolves outside the park.

 Yellowstone in the Winter

While the future of wolves in Yellowstone and the northern Rockies is not secure, it was gratifying to see the progress they’ve made over the past 14 years.   The ecosystem is coming back in balance, and the reintroduction program offers hope for other species reintroduction programs worldwide.

 

Watching the wolves, I couldn’t help but feel grateful for all the people who cared so much, and fought so hard to get these magnificent creatures back where they belong.  And I’m proud that so many Care2 members have been a part of it.  Whether you sent letters to your representatives, volunteered your time, or financially supported the organizations working on the front lines, I hope someday you all will be able to see these wolves in the wild and feel the joy of your efforts.

 

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Posted: Mar 3, 2009 12:02am
Nov 15, 2005

Environmental groups are split over the issue. The National Wildlife Federation supports ending the protections, saying it would highlight the success of the endangered species law. But the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club and other groups contend the grizzly should remain on the list because too many threats to the animal still exist.
Interesting situation. Clearly it's a great thing that the bears are making a recovery, though the current population of 600 in the region does seem far too low for comfort.

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Posted: Nov 15, 2005 4:30pm

 

 
 
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Randy Paynter
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Hillsborough, CA, USA
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