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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Howl of the Wild

Air Date: Week of

The wolves are back in Yellowstone. The plan to reintroduce the canines has been politically controversial, but what has it meant for the park's ecosystem? Jyl Hoyt of member station KBSU previews what impact the predators may have on the balance of nature in the park.


CURWOOD: Fourteen wolves trapped earlier this winter in Canada will soon be released from one-acre holding pens in Yellowstone National Park to go free into the wilderness. The release caps a long and sometimes bitter political fight. Now that the moment has finally arrived, scientists are hoping to watch the natural balance of the Yellowstone ecosystem restore itself, and to gain a better understanding of how nature works. Jyl Hoyt of member station KBSU has our story from Yellowstone.

HOYT: For years there's been talk in towns around Yellowstone National Park that wolves were never part of the landscape. But park archivist Lee Whittlesley calls this bar stool mentality.

(Flipping of papers)

HOYT: He flips through pages of a new book he and a colleague wrote that documents 20 historical accounts of wolves in the Yellowstone area, from 1806 to 1881.

WHITTLESLEY: We found a very early, in 1860s, I believe it's an 1864 account of a prospector in Paradise Valley. He told us, "the wolves were like the poor in the Bible. They were always with us."

HOYT: Whittlesley says life changed quickly and dramatically in the 1870s when European hunters came to Yellowstone and the rest of the American West. First, the hunters nearly wiped out the huge herds of bison, elk, deer, and antelope. Eventually, the wolves were eradicated entirely.

WHITTLESLEY: It makes me think that somewhere, man inherently just wants to destroy things, and that's really kind of depressing to think about that. And I'd like to think maybe it's somehow different today.

HOYT: Today the vast ungulate herds are restored, and government officials say they want to make up for past sins by restoring the wolf. If they succeed, Yellowstone National Park will be the only intact pre-European ecosystem in the lower 48 states.

(Panting wolf and man: "Whoa! Down. More in front.")

HOYT: In January, Federal wildlife officials carried 14 caged animals to 1-acre pens encircled by tall, chain link fences. Scientists plan over the next 3 to 5 years to import a total of 100 wolves to the park to create a stable breeding population. once the wolves are released, biologists predict the predators will find Yellowstone's huge herds of elk, deer, antelope, and bison so enticing that they'll ignore homing instincts to return to Canada.

(Footfalls on snow)

HOYT: Wolf biologist Mike Phillips, a young Robert Redford lookalike, sprints through crusty snow on the edge of Yellowstone's Lamar Valley. He glances over to one of his favorite fishing holes on the river below, then checks for elk on the snowy face of the mountain that rises in front of him.

PHILLIPS: This is real good wolf habitat. You could see a lot of sign of elk; we've been walking on a game trail for the last few minutes to get here. Lots of elk sign.

HOYT: More elk live in Yellowstone now than at any other time in recorded history. Critics say this huge population has stressed the ecosystem by overgrazing. Scientists predict the return of the wolves will thin out the weakest 10 to 30% of these herds.

PHILLIPS: And it may well prove to be a good thing for the elk population, because perhaps it does need to be culled in a sense. And what we haven't seen that role here in Yellowstone because the major predator, the wolf, has been absent.

HOYT: The return of the wolf could set off a domino effect of interaction among other species all the way down to the soil.

(Running water)

HOYT: At Park Headquarters in Mammoth Hot Springs, scientists have long anticipated the wolves' homecoming. In the wolf's absence other predators have moved into part of the wolf's niche. With the wolf's return, they'll have to accommodate and adjust to one another. For example, Park researcher Stu Coleman predicts there will be fewer coyotes but more red fox.

COLEMAN: And that's because coyotes don't get along with red fox, and when they come across them they'll kill them. Coyotes don't get along with wolves, and if wolves come across coyotes, they will kill them. They pay very little attention to red fox, and so by the introduction of wolves we will probably see an increase of red fox.

HOYT: Yellowstone's bluegreen fir and spruce forests are home to about 15 to 18 mountain lions, says Coleman, and each spring more than 200 grizzly bears dig for glacier lilies on Yellowstone's rich green plateaus. Mountain lions, grizzly bears, and wolves tend to avoid each other. But if they meet unexpectedly at a carcass, there can be trouble.

COLEMAN: A pack of wolves is a pretty formidable opponent, and they're able to drive grizzly bears off of carcasses and mountain lions off of carcasses. That's why wolves use the strategy of hunting in packs. That they're much more efficient, and they're much more formidable in numbers.

HOYT: Coleman explains these occasional conflicts won't seriously cut into the populations of grizzlies or mountain lions, because there's so much game in the park. Still, there have been cases in northwestern Montana when wolves sought out and killed mountain lion kittens. As they forage on the frozen, windswept plateaus of Yellowstone, 4,000 bison paw their way through thick snowdrifts. Because these behemoths weigh about 1,500 pounds each, wolves will probably limit their attacks to mainly diseased and dying bison. As the wolves' numbers increase, they'll kill more animals. The carcasses they leave, says Coleman, should replenish and nourish the soil and provide food for scavengers.

COLEMAN: Everything from ravens and fox and coyotes and magpies and down to the domestured beetles will have their way with that same carcass. So there is a whole food chain predicated on these animals dying, and providing protein.

(Footfalls in snow)

HOYT: Wolf biologist Mike Phillips squints in the afternoon sun as he scrambles off the ridge.

PHILLIPS: Once the wolves are released, we'll have a system that works as it should.

HOYT: But as with most things in nature, it will take a while for things to return to a balance.

PHILLIPS: Wolf restoration is more like a marathon than it is a sprint.

HOYT: Phillips worries Congress will cut funding just as wildlife biologists begin to replenish the ecosystem. He believes that would be unfortunate.

PHILLIPS: It's a very positive pursuit; it's not a destructive process. It's a restorative process. And I think that's important for humankind.

HOYT: As the cold winter sun drops behind the mountain, an elk that's been watching Phillips resumes feeding. Life will be different now, not only for the elk, says Phillips, but for those people who say the howl of the wolf strikes a chord in their spirit. For Living on Earth, I'm Jyl Hoyt in Yellowstone National Park.



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