At long last, good news. Fifteen years have passed since wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park and the results are in. The controversial experiment has been a stellar success. The Big Bad Wolf is back and in this modern version of the old story, all that huffing and puffing has been good for the land and the creatures that live on it. Biggie, it turns out, got a bum rap.
The success of the Yellowstone project is the kind of good news we long for in this era of oil spills, monster storms, massive flooding, crushing heat waves, and bleaching corals. For once, a branch of our federal government, the Department of the Interior, saw something broken and actually fixed it. In a nutshell: conservation biologists considered a perplexing problem -- the slow but steady unraveling of the Yellowstone ecosystem -- figured out what was causing it, and then proposed a bold solution that worked even better than expected.
Sadly, the good news has been muted by subsequent political strife over wolf reintroduction outside of Yellowstone. Along the northern front of the Rocky Mountains in Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Utah, and Colorado, as well as New Mexico and Arizona, so-called wolf wars have added fuel to a decades-old battle over the right to graze cattle or hunt on public land. The shouting has overwhelmed both science and civil discourse.
This makes it all the harder to convey the lessons learned to an American public that is mostly ecologically illiterate and never really understood why wolves were put back into Yellowstone in the first place. Even the legion of small donors who supported the project mostly missed the reasons it was undertaken, focusing instead on the "charismatic" qualities of wolves and the chance to see them in the wild.
No Wolves, No Water
Here's the piece we still don't get: when we exterminated wolves from Yellowstone in the early 1900s, killing every last one, we de-watered the land. That's right -- no wolves eventually meant fewer streams, creeks, marshes, and springs across western landscapes like Yellowstone where wolves had once thrived.
The chain of effects went roughly like this: no wolves meant that many more elk crowded onto inviting river and stream banks where the grass is green and the livin' easy. A growing population of fat elk, in no danger of being turned into prey, gnawed down willow and aspen seedlings before they could mature.
Willows are both food and building material for beavers. As the willows declined, so did beaver populations. When beavers build dams and ponds, they create wetland habitats for countless bugs, amphibians, fish, birds, and plants, as well as slowing the flow of water and distributing it over broad areas. The consequences of their decline rippled across the land.
Meanwhile, as the land dried up, Yellowstone's overgrazed riverbanks eroded. Life-giving river water receded, leaving those banks barren. Spawning beds for fish were silted over. Amphibians lost precious shade where they could have sheltered and hidden. Yellowstone's web of life was fraying and becoming threadbare.
The unexpected relationship between absent wolves and absent water is just one example of how big, scary predators like grizzlies and mountain lions, often called "charismatic carnivores," regulate their ecosystems from the top down. The results are especially relevant in an era of historic droughts and global warming, both of which are stressing already arid Western lands. Wolf reintroduction wasn't a scheme designed to undermine vacationing elk hunters or harass ranchers who graze their cattle on public lands. It wasn't done to please some cabal of elitist, urban environmentalists eager to show rural rednecks who's the boss, though out here in the West that interpretation's held sway at many public meetings called to discuss wolf reintroduction.
Let's be clear then: the decision to put wolves back in Yellowstone was a bold experiment backed by the best conservation science available to restore a cherished American ecosystem that was coming apart at the seams.
The Biggest Losers
Today, wolves are thriving in Yellowstone. The 66 wolves trapped in Canada and released in Yellowstone and the Idaho wilderness in 1995-96 have generated more than 1,700 wolves. More than 200 wolf packs exist in the area today and the effect on the environment has been nothing short of astonishing.
There was one beaver colony in the park at the time wolves were reintroduced. Today, 12 colonies are busy storing water, evening out seasonal water flows, recharging springs, and creating habitat. Willow stands are robust again and the songbirds that nest in them are recovering. Creatures that scavenge wolf-kills for meat, including ravens, eagles, wolverines, and bears, have benefited. Wolves have pushed out and killed the coyotes that feed on pronghorn antelope, so pronghorn numbers are also up. Riverbanks are lush and shady again. With less competition from elk for grass, the bison in the park are doing better, too.
Elk are the sole species that has been diminished -- and that, after all, was the purpose of putting wolves back in the game in the first place. The elk population of Yellowstone is still larger than it was at its low point in the late 1960s, but there are fewer elk today than in recent decades. The decline has alarmed elk hunters and the local businesses that rely on their trade.
Worse yet, from the hunting point of view, elk behavior has changed dramatically. Instead of camping out on stream banks and overeating, they roam far more and in smaller numbers, browsing in brushy areas where there is more protective cover. Surviving elk are healthier, but leaner, warier, far more dispersed, and significantly harder to hunt. This further dismays those who had become accustomed to easy hunting and bigger animals.
A lively debate is underway among game wardens, guides, and wildlife biologists about just how far elk numbers have declined, what role drought and other non-wolf variables may be playing in that decline, and whether elk numbers will -- or even should -- rebound. State wildlife agencies that once fed hay to bountiful populations of elk to keep them from starving during harsh winters depend on hunting and fishing licenses to fill their coffers. Predictably enough, they have come down on the side of the frustrated big game hunters, who think the wolves have killed too many elk. Hunters have been a powerful force for conservation when habitat for birds and big game is at stake, but wolf reintroduction hits them right in the ol' game bag, and on this issue they seem to be abandoning former conservation allies. Of course, wolves themselves can be hunted and selling the privilege of doing so has proven lucrative for state wildlife agencies. Montana recently expanded its wolf-killing quota from 75 to 186, while Idaho licensed 220 wolf kills in 2009.
Beyond the Bovine Curtain
As wolf reintroduction took hold and wolves migrated out of Yellowstone as far as Oregon to the west and Colorado to the east, it became clear that surrounding states needed plans to deal with their spread. Once regarded as an endangered species and legally protected by the Endangered Species Act, wolves were taken off the formal list of protected creatures wherever states created plans for restoring and managing them. The intention of the federal government was to allow states to participate in, and so take some control over, the recovery process in the West.
As it happened, however, most states took a strikingly hostile approach to their new wolf populations, treating them as varmints. A federal court took away Wyoming's power to regulate wolves within its borders when it decided that the state's management goal would be no wolves at all outside of the Yellowstone and Teton national parks. Other Western states are now planning to keep their numbers as low as possible without triggering a federal takeover, too low to play their ecological role, or even survive over the long run, according to conservation biologists. After wolves were "delisited" in Idaho in 2009, 188 of them were killed by hunters before the year was out.
In August 2010, a federal judge ruled that wolves everywhere but in Minnesota and Alaska (where wolf populations are plentiful and healthy) must be relisted as an endangered species and afforded more protection. How this major decision will shape the debate from here on out is uncertain. Since relisting precludes sport hunting, state wildlife agencies are now making plans to kill more wolves themselves to keep their numbers low. Critics worry about a return to the days when wolves were routinely shot, trapped, poisoned, and gassed in their dens.