The Late 926F of the Lamar Canyon pack approaching a bison carcass, 2018. Photo by author.
Wolves and the Yellowstone Ecosystem
Contributing from the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem
The 18-million-acre Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (with Yellowstone National Park making up 2.2 million acres of that ecosystem) is one of the largest nearly-intact temperate-zone areas in the world (NPS pg 53; 2018). Yellowstone National Park is bordered by the states of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming where hunting wolves is legal during certain seasons with proper permits.
The last of the wolves in Yellowstone were killed off in 1926 and studies have shown that the removal of this top predator had devastating affects on a variety of plant-eating animals and thus the plants themselves; everything from aspen and willow to grasses and shrubs. Wolves mostly prey upon elk, the largest of the deer family. Green plants supply 50-80% of an elk’s diet (as well as other ungulates [hooved animals] like bison and bighorn sheep).
Since the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone in 1995 and 1996, the park is now home to every large wild mammal that was present at the time Europeans first came to North America (NPS, pg 63; 2018). Since then, the term “trophic cascade” has come into focus as research is showing that an animal that is killed by a large carnivore like a wolf helps feed scavengers like ravens, fox, and coyote but also provides homes for beetles, flies, and many other small animals
(NPS, pg 63; 2018).
Wolf 755M from 2011 sharing his frustration as a grizzly steals a deer carcass from him and his mate, the "O6" female. Photo by T. Plank; PAHunting.com.
In 1995 before reintroduction, elk counts in the park and nearby areas of Montana peaked at nearly 20,000 and approximately 2500 elk were killed by hunters that year. After wolves were brought back, elk numbers dropped to 11,000 within three years and hunters were able to kill 2,000 elk during hunting season. The elk declines coincide with wolf reintroduction, increased numbers of mountain lion, grizzly bear, and also consistent human hunting of elk, and an extended drought (NPS, pg 63; 2018). It takes one man to kill an elk, but it takes an entire pack of wolves to kill that same animal.
The impact of carnivores including the wolf on an ecosystem such as Yellowstone is a vital one. Apex predators like wolves, mountain lions, and grizzly bears are integral to a healthy and balanced wilderness area. By controlling populations of plant-eating animals, vegetation can flourish, and soils are maintained thus contributing to life-cycles of Yellowstone’s species: 67 mammals, 7 ungulates, 2 bears, 285 birds, 16 fish (5 nonnative), 5 amphibian, and 6 reptiles (NPS, pg 1, 2018). An intact wilderness must include all native species to the area even if that animal brings about controversy.
References and recommended reading to learn more about Yellowstone's wolves and ecosystem:
"Yellowstone's Wildlife in Transition" Thirty contributors made this book happen in "Recognizing the importance of natural occurrences such as fires and predation, this more ecologically informed oversight has achieved notable successes, including the recovery of threatened native species of wolves, bald eagles, and grizzly bears."
Yellowstone.org. The official non-profit partner of Yellowstone National Park. In addition to funding 53 different projects throughout Yellowstone this organization also provides 80% of funding for wolf research.
“Wolfer” by Carter Niemeyer (a memoir by the man who was tasked with trapping the wolves reintroduced into Yellowstone)
Yellowstone Resources and Issues Handbook 2018 (released every year with detailed info on Yellowstone history, geology, cultural resources, ecosystem, thermal features, vegetation, fire, and wildlife)
“Decade of the Wolf” by Doug Smith and Gary Ferguson (Doug Smith is the Team Leader and Senior Biologist of the Wolf Project and has been studying Yellowstone’s wolves since the day they were reintroduced)
“Yellowstone Wolves in the Wild” by James C Halfpenny (Dr. Halfpenny is a world-renown wildlife tracker and has been publishing data on wolves since their reintroduction; visit his website at: www.tracknature.com)
“The Killing of Wolf Number 10” by Thomas McNamee (Number 10 was one of the original wolves introduced. He and his mate 9F were the parents of a legendary wolf that would help form the famous Druid Peak pack).
“American Wolf” by Nate Blakeslee (the story of wolf 832F known by her birth year “O6,” the daughter of famous alpha female 42F of the Druid Peak pack).
About the Author
Vanessa originally hails from Florida but moved out west to work as a park ranger in Montana after experiencing California's Yosemite National Park. She now works year-round in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.