Douglas Chadwick, a prominent Montana author, penned a though-provoking article on the never-ending controversy of gray wolves in the Northern Rockies for the March 2010 edition of National Geographic.
In “Wolf Wars,” Chadwick touches on many of the issues associated with the return of Canis lupus to the wild environs of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming (e.g., history, livestock ranching, false information, endangered species listing, litigation, impact on hunting opportunities, economic effect, etc.).
But what struck me most about Chadwick’s piece was how well he captured the ecological importance of the wolf’s return. Simply put, wolves have greatly improved the health of the Northern Rockies ecosystems they now inhabit.
For example, without wolves:
[B]y most measures the [Yellowstone elk] population had swelled too high, and their range was deteriorating. Shortly after killing the last Yellowstone wolves in 1926, park officials were culling elk by the thousands. The elk kept rebounding and overgrazing key habitats, creating a perpetually unnatural situation for a park intended to preserve nature.
With wolves back in the picture, however:
[P]ack-hunted elk turn into less vulnerable quarry. They become more vigilant and keep on the move more. In the wolfless era, herds practically camped at favorite winter dining spots, foraging on young aspen, willow, and cottonwood until the stems grew clubbed and stunted like bonsai plants. Released from such grazing pressure, saplings now shoot up to form lush young groves. More songbirds find nesting habitat within their leafy shade. Along waterways, vigorous willow and cottonwood growth helps stabilize stream banks. More insects fall from overhanging stems to feed fish and amphibians. Beavers find enough nutritious twigs and branches to support new colonies.
Chadwick goes on to explain that Doug Smith, head of the Yellowstone Wolf Project, found only one beaver colony in Yellowstone’s northern range in 1996, the lowest total in many years. By 2009, however, with wolves on the landscape for just over a decade, Smith located twelve colonies.
Chadwick then describes the impact of more beavers and the effect of wolves on other critters:
Along Crystal Creek I find another recent beaver dam storing water, releasing a more constant flow for riparian species downstream through the dry months. Ponds and marshes that form behind the dams create habitat for moose, muskrat, mink, waterfowl, wading birds, and an array of other wildlife. After wolves moved in, cougars that had begun hunting the valleys retreated to the steep, rocky terrain they normally inhabit. The big canines killed nearly half the coyote population. They may have rebounded a bit, but the coyotes now live in groups with shrunk territories or as vagabond “floaters.” With less competition from elk for grasses, bison may be doing better than ever.
Ecologically speaking, Chadwick explains that “[f]rom a single new predatory force on the landscape, a rebalancing effect ripples all the way to microbes in the soil. Biologists define the series of top-down changes as a trophic cascade. In a nod to the behavioral factors at play, others speak of the ‘ecology of fear.’”
And what about the gripe that wolves are eating all the elk in the Northern Rockies? Chadwick, like so many others, puts that fabulously false rumor to bed (though surely it will matter not to the devoted propagators of the myth):
[B]oth elk and deer are doing well across the West. As game manager Jim Williams puts it, “With wolves back in the picture along with cougars and bears, we'll have places where elk and deer may never be as abundant again as people remember, and we'll have other places where they'll do fine. There are bigger drivers than wolves in these systems.” Studies have shown that winter weather and the quality of wintering habitat are really what control deer and elk populations over time. That and human hunting.
Chadwick relates how a Montana state government biologist said that, until recently, “most gripes about wildlife concerned elk raiding haystacks and deer damaging crops and gardens and being a danger on highways.” And while the Bitterroot Valley in western Montana has “10 to 12 wolf packs for a minimum of 45 to 60 wolves, we also have 14,000 hunters coming through the Bitterroot check station in a given year.”
In fact, the elk total today in the Bitterroot Valley is above 6,000 animals, whereas in the 1970s less than 3,000 elk inhabited the Bitterroot because hunters were allowed to kill so many females (which makes one question how good “the good old days” really were).
Wolves balance elk and deer populations in the Northern Rockies, but hunter harvest, winter range quality and availability, winter severity, and development collectively play a much, much bigger role in deer and elk numbers. And without wolves, the whole landscape would suffer.
Ultimately, human tolerance will dictate the wolf’s future in the Northern Rockies. We eradicated them from these parts once, and we could easily do it again.
And thus the question Chadwick poses to close his article is the most critical question facing wolves today:
"When we say we want to conserve wildlife communities in America, does that mean including the wolf, or not?"