Howl­ing suc­cess

Los Angeles Times - - Opinion - Chip Ward Chip Ward is the author of “Ca­naries on the Rim: Liv­ing Down­wind in the West” and “Hope’s Hori­zon: Three Vi­sions for Heal­ing the Amer­i­can Land.” Alonger ver­sion of this piece can be found at tomdis­patch.com or at chip­wardessays.blogspot.com.

Wolves, as you have un­doubt­edly heard, are once again thriv­ing in Yel­low­stone. The 66 trapped in Canada and re­leased in Yel­low­stone and the Idaho wilder­ness in 199596 have gen­er­ated more than 1,700 wolves. To the de­light of sci­en­tists and tourists — and the dis­may of many ranch­ers — more than 200 wolf packs ex­ist in the area to­day. Courts and govern­ment agen­cies are still sort­ing out how the wolves should be man­aged. But one thing is abun­dantly clear: The rein­tro­duc­tion has suc­ceeded in ways that ex­tend far be­yond the health of the wolves them­selves. It has re­shaped an en­tire ecosys­tem.

When we ex­ter­mi­nated wolves from Yel­low­stone in the early 1900s, 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. A grow­ing pop­u­la­tion of fat elk, in no dan­ger of be­ing turned into prey, gnawed down wil­low and aspen seedlings be­fore they could ma­ture. As the wil­lows de­clined, so did beavers, which used the trees for food and build­ing ma­te­rial. When beavers build dams and make 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. Spawn­ing beds for fish silted over. Am­phib­ians lost pre­cious shade. Yel­low­stone’s web of life was fray­ing.

The de­ci­sion to put wolves back in Yel­low­stone was a bold ex­per­i­ment backed by the best con­ser­va­tion sci­ence avail­able to re­store a cher­ished ecosys­tem that was com­ing apart at the seams.

The un­ex­pected re­la­tion­ship be­tween ab­sent wolves and ab­sent wa­ter is just one ex­am­ple of how large preda­tors such as griz­zlies, wolves and moun­tain lions 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.

At the time wolves were rein­tro­duced, Yel­low­stone had just one beaver colony. 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. Ravens, ea­gles, wolver­ines and bears, which scav­enge wolf kills for meat, have ben­e­fited. Wolves have pushed out 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.

That is not to say there were no losers. Elk num­bers have been di­min­ished — but that, af­ter all, was one pur­pose of reintroducing wolves. The elk pop­u­la­tion of Yel­low­stone is still larger than at its low point in the late 1960s, but there are fewer elk to­day than in re­cent decades. Still, 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 with 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.

As wolf rein­tro­duc­tion has taken hold and wolves have mi­grated out of Yel­low­stone as far as Ore­gon to the west and Colorado to the east, ranch­ers have also grown ner­vous.

Un­til now, where wolves and cows mix, cows have ruled. What wildlife ad­vo­cate Ge­orge Wuerth­ner calls the “bovine cur­tain” lim­its full wolf restora­tion to within Yel­low­stone’s bound­aries. Out­side the park, wolf packs con­tin­u­ally form but are of­ten slaugh­tered, usu­ally at the in­sis­tence of ranch­ers who can legally shoot wolves that at­tack cat­tle. Wolf pre­da­tion ac­counts for only about 1% of live­stock deaths across the North­ern Rock­ies, but those deaths gen­er­ate dis­pro­por­tion­ate re­sent­ment and fear.

In the arid West, a cow may re­quire 250 acres of for­age to live. In the states where wolves are spread­ing, cows wan­der wide and don’t sleep safely in barns at night as they do in the East. Wolves need room to roam too, so over­lap and pre­da­tion are in­evitable. If wolves are ever to ef­fec­tively play their eco­log­i­cal role again across the West, sig­nif­i­cant changes in an­i­mal hus­bandry — like adding range rid­ers and guard dogs — would be re­quired, as well, un­doubt­edly, as less graz­ing over­all.

But as Yel­low­stone’s ex­pe­ri­ence demon­strates, there would likely be un­ex­pected ben­e­fits as well.

It’s far clearer now that na­ture is more ef­fi­cient than we’d re­al­ized at cre­at­ing healthy, vi­able ecosys­tems. Mat­ter and en­ergy are never wasted in food webs where syn­ergy is the rule. Think of wolf rein­tro­duc­tion, then, as a kind of hinge point be­tween the two par­a­digms. Af­ter cen­turies of not leav­ing the nat­u­ral world’s or­der to chance, mi­cro­manag­ing wher­ever we could, we are now tak­ing a chance on na­ture.

Hard days are ahead as the weather, once be­nign and pre­dictable, be­comes hot­ter, drier and ever more chaotic. Western land­scapes are al­ready stressed — whole forests are dy­ing and deserts are be­com­ing dust­bowls. To main­tain their vi­tal­ity in the face of such dire chal­lenges, those lands will need all the re­lief we can give them. We now un­der­stand far bet­ter the many ways in which na­ture’s liv­ing com­mu­ni­ties are as­ton­ish­ingly con­nected and re­cip­ro­cal. If we could only find the courage to trust their self-or­ga­niz­ing pow­ers to heal the wounds we have in­flicted, we might be­come as re­silient as those Yel­low­stone wolves.

IN THE WILD:

Joel Sar­tore

Yel­low­stone Na­tional Park’s wolf pop­u­la­tion has grown from the 66 rein­tro­duced in 1995 to more than 1,700 now.

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