The Yellowstone and central Idaho wolf re-introductions of 1995 turned out to be highly successful, yet now, 18 years later, wolves in the Rockies remain as controversial and polarizing as ever. Pro-wolf sentiment reflects majority opinion, but even here there remain considerable differences regarding hunting and geographic limits to protection. There is also a vocal contingent of some ranchers and elk hunters (and elk hunting outfitters) who remain stridently anti-wolf (and anti-bear, anti-mountain lion…..). That’s because wolves occasionally prey on livestock. And yes, in some areas — though not in most — wolves and other carnivores have reduced elk populations in recent years.
As a former ranch-hand in my younger days, I sympathize with economic loss accrued by ranch families, though these losses have often been exaggerated and various active livestock management techniques can dramatically reduce wolf losses. Moreover, ranchers are compensated when they can show that losses are due to native carnivores. Still, it hurts small operations to lose livestock for any reason, although many ranches in the region are either corporate-owned or are “hobby ranches” owned by wealthy out-of-state residents playing cowboy and getting big tax write-offs.
As an avid deer and elk hunter, I agree that elk are tougher to hunt than they were in pre-wolf days, especially in my home area just north of Yellowstone. It’s one of the few areas in which elk numbers have dramatically declined. Interestingly, though, there have been dramatic increases in Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) mountain lion and grizzly populations concurrent with expanding wolf populations, and biologists have learned that where elk populations have declined, the causes are actually a combination of various carnivores plus other factors including drought/climate change. It is simply incorrect to single out wolves for elk declines. And most ecologists now agree that the areas where elk have dramatically declined are areas where pre-wolf elk populations were unnaturally high, way above the carrying capacity of the land. Yet despite the resurgence of the gray wolf, most elk populations in Rocky Mountain wolf country remain either at or above state game management goals.
Here are just a few additional things to bear in mind. Wolves belong here. They and their prey co-evolved here. Large carnivores tend to select the sick and the weak, strengthening the gene pool of the prey species. Elk, deer, pronghorn, moose and other hoofed mammals are strong, sleek and fast precisely because they’ve had to evolve those traits in response to carnivores! The vegetation needs carnivores, too. In guiding throughout the GYE I’ve taken note of a radical increase in young healthy stands of quaking aspen and willow during the last two decades. Prior to wolf return, these species appeared to be dying out. Coincidence? Maybe not. Some researchers credit the wolf and other carnivores for either reducing elk numbers or changing their foraging behavior or both, thus allowing aspen stands and willow thickets to re-surge. With this comeback of these nutritious deciduous species, biological diversity has exploded with more songbirds and small mammals plus more waterfowl and other aquatic species, since more willow equals more beaver (it’s a primary beaver food) and more beavers mean more ponds and wetlands. There is also evidence that at least some of this deciduous resurgence is also a response to the extensive wildfires that burned in 1988 and in later years, too. Rarely are changes in wild nature attributable to just one cause. For more general information about wolves, the International Wolf Center is a good source.
None of this information is very new any more, though controversy remains. But here’s something that’s tough to argue with. Yellowstone backcountry visitors relish the opportunity to see and hear wolves. Our clients rate wolf encounters as one of the highlights of their lives, even if they experience them only as a distant howl reverberating across the open spaces of wild backcountry deep in the otherwise stillness of a black starry night. To experience their haunting wail or even to catch a rare glimpse of a wolf in the wild is to know for certain, without doubt, that wolves belong here. They belong here as much as anything does, including you and me. When you cut through all of the hyperbole, it comes down to this: you either appreciate native life, all of it, even species that are sometimes inconvenient for humans. Or you don’t. For those of us who do, the return of wolves to the U.S. Rockies is a ray of hope in an era of tough times for the planet. Long live the wolf in the wild. Long may she wail.