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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Field Note: Winter Wolves on the Move

Published: November 22, 2019


By Mark Seth Lender


Yellowstone National Park ensures the long-term viability of wolves in Greater Yellowstone and provides a place for research on how wolves may affect many aspects of the ecosystem. (Photo: NPS / Jim Peaco)

Living on Earth's Explorer in Residence Mark Seth Lender describes the necropsy of an elk taken down by Yellowstone wolves, and remarks on how predation has changed the landscape and inhabitants of the iconic National Park.

Field Note:

Two days later, when it was all over, I watched Dave Mech necropsy the elk. Mech was the first biologist to develop a significant and scientific understanding of wolves. By the time we got there the scavengers had already arrived. There were bald eagles and ravens. A single golden eagle swooped in and for a time chased the other birds away. A coyote appeared. Coyotes are no match for wolves (a fact of which the coyote was) very much aware. He pulled at the frozen carcass hard and nervously, and every few seconds looking all around.

None of what the scavengers had taken mattered to Mech. What he was after would be found in the hair, and in the bone. He pointed out the winter tick all around the neck, and once he sawed through the femur how the marrow was like gelatin, translucent and pink instead of stolid and red. The elk, statuesque on the outside, was starving to death. Starvation brought on by overpopulation because in our wisdom we had exterminated the wolves, leaving elk to multiply without control for many decades.

Now the wolves have done their part. The elk are no longer starving. The Aspen once grazed to oblivion are returning to the slopes. And throughout the west once again the ranchers and the farmers are out killing off the wolves, despite that weather both freezing and hot, and disease, and accident are what kill their cattle and in huge numbers; while the wolves take fewer animals than the ones killed by lightning.

Listen to Mark Seth Lender read his Winter Wolves on the Move essay

Mark Seth Lender's website

Mark’s fieldwork and travel are arranged by Destination: Wildlife.

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