A lone female elk in the morning fog near Grizzly Lookout. I had heard one of the Hayden Valley wolf packs in this area just a few minutes before taking this photo.
While traveling through Yellowstone National Park I was struck by the way in which the park’s wilderness is being reshaped and redefined every day. Yellowstone workers and administrators have engaged in a herculean effort to restore the wildness of the nation’s first national park, from the celebrated reestablishment of the bison herds to the cessation of bear feeding at park garbage dumps, but there still are tensions between the 2% of “frontcountry” (or the developed part of the park along the roads) and the 98% of “backcountry” (or wilderness). Geothermal features have appeared suddenly beneath roads, the movements of the bison herds outside the park is carefully monitored and managed out of rancher’s fear that the bovids may spread brucellosis to cattle, and despite repeated pleas some visitors still insist on feeding the animals.
This last source of tension led to the death of one of Yellowstone’s wolves, a descendant of those reintroduced to the park in the late 1990’s, earlier this year. I had not heard about this story when it broke this past May, but its impact was deeply felt by the parks rangers. The incident was mentioned by multiple rangers during evening programs as a saddening example of what happens when visitors think they are helping a wild animal with a hand-out.
No one actually saw the wolf take food from people, but the young animal exhibited classic signs of habituation to humans. Residing near Old Faithful and Biscuit Basin, the wolf chased bicyclists and approached visitors in cars and on foot in what appeared to be begging behavior. (One ranger stated that the person who had first fed it was on a bicycle, but I have not seen this confirmed. One report mentions that the wolf followed a woman on a bike but only after it had been habituated.) Efforts to shake the animal’s interest in people failed; it just kept looking for handouts. Out of other options, the park decided to kill the wolf. The animal had to pay the price for someone’s stupidity, and it was put down so that Yellowstone’s wolves can remain wild. To modify what the park’s materials say about bears, a fed wolf is a dead wolf.
I post this as hunters take to the forests and plains of Idaho hoping to get wolves in their sights. (A wolf hunt in Montana is scheduled to start on the 15th.) The hunt, the first legal wolf hunt since the reestablishment of wolves in the greater Yellowstone wilderness, was announced with little notice, perhaps in an attempt to forestall legal attempts to shut it down. Indeed, Judge Donald W. Molloy of Federal District Court in Montana (who is presiding over the present legal action to stop the hunt) halted a wolf hunt scheduled in Idaho last year. Although Molloy is now writing up his conclusions, hunters will have several days to hunt before the judge issues his decision.
Regardless of Molloy’s decision, though, this is not going to be the last legal battle over America’s recently re-installed wolf population. Politics and popular mythology all-but shut out any scientific considerations, particularly since the interests of ranchers and hunters weigh heavily on the fate of wolves. While disease and even other canids kill far more livestock than wolves do the large predators get much more press, and rumors spread among ranchers that the Yellowstone packs (and the packs descended from them) are somehow “unnatural” and therefore more destructive.*
*[I became aware of this rumor through a woman who attended two successive evening ranger programs at Yellowstone. She asked the first ranger if the packs were unnatural, and the ranger explained that the wolf packs are healthy and normal despite what she had heard. Not satisfied, she asked the second ranger the exact same question, fishing for anything that might confirm that the wolves were somehow aberrant and therefore a greater threat to ranchers. Similar sentiments about the wolf population being “out of control” were expressed to me by a young hunter I met while I was trying to catch a glimpse of a Hayden Valley wolf pack one morning.]
Some also claim that the wolf packs, which are moving into new areas, are placing other forms of wildlife (namely elk) in jeopardy. This is complete nonsense. Yes, the reintroduction of wolves will make elk populations fall, but this is not a bad thing. (Especially given Yellowstone’s past problems managing an over-inflated elk population in the absence of wolves.) The presence of wolves will result in healthier, wilder elk populations and will likely cause trophic cascades where other forms of wildlife will benefit. This has already been seen in Yellowstone.
The changes wildlife biologists in Yellowstone have seen since the reintroduction of wolves has gone like this. Wolves are apex predators that feed on elk, particularly the young and the sick, and the elk population has declined as a result. This has been a good thing as there were previously so many elk in Yellowstone that rangers either had to feed them or give them away so that the park population would not starve. This predation pressure has also caused elk to become more wary, and many have stopped feeding in habitats where they could be ambushed like areas of long grass near riverbanks.
While along the riverbanks the elk preferred to feed in young willows, but now that they avoid these areas the willows can grow. This increased willow growth has provided more homes to birds and shade for fish. In turn, beavers now have more wood to construct dams which, dams which flood areas that can become prime moose habitat. (As a side note, word has it that much of Yellowstone’s moose population moved south into Grand Teton National Park after Yellowstone’s intense fires. Perhaps some will come back in time.) As one ranger expressed during an evening talk, the reintroduction of wolves has made Yellowstone a much wilder place.
Now it should be said that the present wolf hunt is not an effort to entirely eradicate wolves from the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, but the hunting of any wolves is not something to be taken lightly. Perhaps some wolves can be taken without harming the overall population. The question is whether that can be done in a way that sustains the genetic diversity of the wolf populations.
The wolves have only been back in the Yellowstone area for about a decade (something this ESPN article ignored when it stated that “Up until a couple of decades ago, free-ranging wolves were not seen as a problem in the Rocky Mountain states.” Yeah, because they weren’t there…). As such, it is important to make sure that the wolf populations contain enough genetic diversity so that they do not become susceptible to disease or start extensively inbreeding. Recent studies have suggested that inbreeding is low among the Yellowstone-area wolves and that they exhibit healthy levels of genetic variation, but this is something that should be fostered and preserved. It is not an “all clear” to sharply cut down population numbers (especially since breeding of members from different packs will be important to sustaining a healthy wolf population in the future). Indeed, not only was wolf population size much, MUCH larger than the current goals for wolf population restoration, but they were much more genetically diverse.
While problem wolves may have to be eliminated, it seems that the most vocal advocates of wolf hunting or looking for a kind of vengeance rather than careful and sustainable management of wolf populations. Wolves compete with hunters for elk as prey and they sometimes kill livestock, and for some this reason enough to want to trim their numbers without actually considering whether it is ecologically responsible to do so. Conversely, some wolves do kill livestock and such problem wolves may have to be destroyed. We should not be so naive as to think that reestablishing wolves in the continental United States will not require active monitoring and management if it is to be a success.
A bison crosses the road in the early morning mist, just south of Grizzly Lookout in Yellowstone.
On our penultimate day in Yellowstone my wife and I got up early to try and spot one of the Hayden Valley packs. The day before we had been turned back from Grizzly Lookout, a prime wolf-spotting pullout, by a dense fog that enveloped the area for miles south of Canyon campground. (The sulphur-smelling mist was thick enough that it made the morning’s bison jam a harrowing experience as I carefully tried to avoid the humped masses in the gloom.) The grey pall still hung over the valley on our second attempt, but we staying in the hopes that the sun would burn it off.
Over the course of a few hours the Hayden Valley slowly came into view. A few elk were just distinguishable through the fog, but as the morning traffic along the road began to pick up we started to think about heading back. Then we heard them. Only just audible during a lull in the file of cars and buses was a wolf pack coming together before the morning hunt. A few more automobiles passed, their engines drowning out the sound of the wolves, but when silence returned we were able to hear the conclusion of the canid calls.
It was a poignant reminder of the wolf’s tenuous place in the continental United States. We may not see them often, but we know they are there, and the wildness they symbolize is in conflict with the landscape we have created. They represent a kind of captive wilderness, something both fierce and fragile. Over a decade after their return to Yellowstone, we are still learning to live with wolves.
Update: As of this morning (September 2) at least two wolves have been killed so far in the Idaho hunt.
[Many thanks to Defenders of Wildlife and others who have retweeted this essay or otherwise shared it. I hope to return to Yellowstone someday soon and expand upon the topic of “captive wilderness” that I have briefly mentioned here.]