Thursday, February 21, 2008

Yellowstone's Wolves

Well, they delisted the wolf from the endangered species list in the Rocky Mountain area. I've got mixed feelings about that.

We were visiting Yellowstone when the first plans were being made to reintroduce wolves into the Yellowstone ecosystem. On that visit the buffalo were at one of their largest population levels - really too many for the park's natural resources to sustain. At that time the only wolves in the continental United States were in parts of Michigan and perhaps northeastern Minnesota.

Humans have a love-hate relationship with wolves. Wolves are cunning and very intelligent creatures. They work together as a pack both to hunt and to care for their young. We have many stories about pioneer people out camping or living in very primitive conditions and fending off attacks from a starving wolf pack (at least I have many memories of movie and TV versions of these tales.) And, yes, the wolf is a mighty hunter. In the days when our nation was a more agrarian society, wolf attacks on domestic animals were a real issue.

The states surrounding Yellowstone National Park are still primarily rural with farming and ranching as major industries. When the wolf was reintroduced to Yellowstone, provision was made to pay ranchers for any livestock lost to wolf predation. Wolves caught in the act of harming livestock or threatening humans were fair game to be killed. Ranchers were worried . . . but a lot of effort was made to keep them from being financially harmed by this experiment.

But as much as people feel threatened by wolves, we are also fascinated by them. They are beautiful creatures with an amazing social structure. I've been privileged enough to get to see a morning reunion of a wolf pack - and it is a joyful amazing event. The sound of the wolf howls and barks of greeting are an amazingly primitive call that thrills that still wild part of our nature. There is quite a large number of people who come and spend time in Yellowstone each year both to study the wolves and their packs and to enjoy them. We've named their packs, identified individuals and mourned the losses that occur when two packs get too close together.

I've been more than willing to get up at 4 or 5 o'clock in the morning to trek across the park to be in position to watch the morning activities of a pack. I've stayed out after sunset (even when it was a long 2 hour drive back to the campsite) in hopes of hearing the wolves or catching a glimpse of their evening activities. I'm secretly jealous of those people who get to spend weeks or months EVERY summer and know exactly where to find which pack and who know the wolves "by name."

The wolves that were introduced into Yellowstone have indeed spread throughout the park. However, wolf packs are very territorial and I remember hearing that the wolf numbers are not increasing right now due to wars between the packs where individual wolves die.

Humans were able to totally remove the wolf from its original range. And, there were law suits that wanted to remove the wolves from Yellowstone. But wolves were part of the original ecosystem at Yellowstone and the park has seen many benefits from the reintroduction. Aspens and willows are coming back from elk over grazing. The elk and buffalo herds have a natural predator keeping the numbers at more reasonable levels for the ecosystem to support.

But with the delisting, I suspect that the wolf population outside the park will be at greater risk than before. I wonder how long before the only wolves in the Rockies are the ones in Yellowstone National Park and perhaps Grand Teton National Park. Will it be easier or more difficult to put them back on the endangered species list then? What will the politics be?

My heart says we have too few wild places left. My heart wants them to stay wild. My heart wants to protect the "critters."

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