By now I’m sure many of you have heard about the gray wolf incident west of town. I’m not going to rehash that particular story, but instead focus on the larger picture. Right away when I heard about that female wolf, I heard just as many rumors about controlling the deer population. Internet articles were ablaze with all sorts of government blasting rhetoric. I’m not going to speculate about any nefarious plans lurking beneath the public eye.
Instead, I prefer to take a look at how interference with natural environments always leads to some sort of cause-effect relationship. Humans have meddled with animal populations since the beginning of our existence on this planet. The wolf, along with numerous other species, has felt our impact at both ends of the spectrum.
Before Europeans colonizing North America, the wolf roamed freely and called pretty much all of this continent home. With colonization came agriculture. This included raising livestock.
Needless to say, wolves can do significant damage to domestic herds. This financial factor, along with the overall reputation as an undesirable predator, led to the almost complete extirpation from many localized areas. The wolf survived by maintaining viable populations throughout Canada and the very northern reaches of the United States. The gray wolf did receive endangered species protection in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan in 1974. In 2003, the wolf was reclassified to threatened in these same regions.
With the near eradication of the wolf, the entire cycle and balance of nature changed. Herds that were normally controlled by natural predation flourished. When these herds expanded, the natural flora in those areas were over utilized and in many cases, severely damaged.
Probably the most famous case of wolves and the idea of re-establishing a viable population occurred in Yellowstone National Park in 1995. The elk population within the park was causing serious issues, including those mentioned above. The idea was to bring in some natural predators to help control the balance.
Fourteen wolves were released in two separate groups in 1995. In 1996, another 17 were introduced to the park. In 2010, there were 10 areas in which wolf populations existed. If you Google the National Park Service and search for wolves in Yellowstone, you actually will find the distribution map along with the names of the packs and their territories. It is quite interesting to look at.
The reintroduction of the wolves have had a major effect on the elk population, which in turn trickles down to other animals and plant species. The natural flora started to return, including willows. Because of this, the population of beavers in the park started to rise.
Another animal that felt the effect was the coyote. Wolves are a natural enemy to coyotes. Before the wolf introduction, the coyote population in the park was massive. The introduction of the larger predator changed that rather quickly. Because of fewer coyotes, the red fox population proceeded to rise. Coyotes are natural enemies for foxes.
The list of effects goes on and on. We could write about it forever. The point is the repercussions of making a single change in an ecosystem can have effects that even the most educated biologists can’t predict. The wolf population in the areas surrounding the National Park have reached sustainable levels, to the point of allowing limited predator hunting of wolves to proceed. To be clear, the hunts cannot take place in the park, but on lands outside of it.
Of course, the reintroduction of the wolves to Yellowstone has plenty of critics. Many say the predators are taking more elk than originally predicted and causing other stresses on the herd as well.
Who knows what will happen? The only thing we do know is as policies change and peoples attitudes and opinions sway, we will continue to try to manipulate Mother Nature. Only time will tell if our tampering will be for the betterment of all living things.
• Steve Rogers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org