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Two Paws Up: The Ecological Role of Wolves

May 17, 2019

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Wolf reintroduction has become a hot topic in the last two decades, as endangered species of wolves are reintroduced into environments they'd previously disappeared from.

The ecological role wolves play in the wild is multifaceted.

As apex predators, wolves are important to the ecosystem, and their reintroduction causes positive cascade effects on the whole environment.

The Ecological Role of Wolves

Considered nuisance predators by ranchers losing cattle and sheep, they were hunted into near extinction. Even after national parks were established, no protections were put into place to save the remaining population.

By the 1920s, wolves had disappeared from parks like Yellowstone.

Originally, it didn't seem like a big deal that the wolves were gone. For the first few years, no effect was observed.

However, after a decade or so it became apparent that wolves were a far larger player in the overall health of the environment than previously thought.

Wolves Prevent Resource Overuse

When wolves disappeared, moose, elk and deer populations skyrocketed.

Environmentalists noticed that large sections of land were becoming barren of their traditional aspen and willow tree stands.

The larger herds, no longer afraid of being hunted, had stopped moving around as much and overgrazed their habitats.

This led to many species of plants almost disappearing, a decline in the health of the trees as they were stripped, and damage to waterways as they became wider from so much standing traffic.

In turn, the fish, reptile and amphibian populations decreased as the water became shallower and warmer, with less shade from trees.

In the heavier forested areas, overgrazing led to a decrease in nesting areas for birds. Several species of birds disappeared from the park altogether as a result.

Park rangers didn't want to bring wolves back, and instead instituted population control measures for the elk in the park. This did help stop overgrazing, although it didn't return the park's plant life to its previous growth.

A few decades later, however, hunters complained that there weren't enough elk and the government threatened to cut the park's funding. The control measures were stopped, the elk population ballooned again, and the grazing devastation began anew.

With wolf reintroduction in the 1990s, grazing herds became smaller and more broken up as they were forced to move around wolf hunting patterns. The local plant life stabilized and began to grow back.

Animal Populations are Balanced

Overpopulation of other species didn't stop at the grazing herds.

One of the bigger issues was that of coyote control. Wolf packs roam large tracts of land and keep smaller predators in check.

When their territory is reduced or they are removed from it, the next-in-line hunters have no competition and become a nuisance themselves.

Coyotes don't prey as much on larger animals, but pronghorn calves are a favorite target, leading to a decline in the pronghorn population.

In addition to the pronghorn, the coyote's main food source is rodents like weasels, rats, and voles. The birds of prey that also depend on a plentiful supply of these prey animals were forced to look elsewhere for their meal, and several species disappeared from the park entirely.

When wolves were reintroduced, the coyotes were no longer able to roam and hunt unchecked. Wolf packs returned balance to the system. The coyote population diminished to what the ecosystem could support and the pronghorn, rodent, and hunting bird populations rebounded and balanced out.

Soil Health is Improved

Wolf hunting patterns contribute to soil health in several ways.

The carcasses they leave behind add nitrogen and other necessary nutrients to the soil as they decompose.

In addition, wolves keep herds on the move. Besides preventing overgrazing, thousands of running hooves churn and aerate the soil.

Wolves Feed Other Animals

Wolf hunting doesn't just feed the soil - it feeds a whole host of other animals with the kills they leave behind.

Wolves tend to scatter their kills across distances, meaning a large number of other species have access to the remains.

Larger scavenging animals like bears, lynxes, cougars, foxes, and wolverines are the first to benefit from the left behind carcasses. Studies show these carrion animals flourish in areas wolves hunt.

Birds including ravens, magpies, bald and golden eagles, chickadees, and owls are next in line. Over 500 species of insects finish off what's left behind.

Wolves Decrease Infectious Diseases

Wolves tend to cull herds of old and sick animals.

Those carrying infectious diseases that decimate entire herds tend to be killed off before they can spread the disease around.

Chronic diseases, such as wasting disease, can't be controlled by human measures such as vaccines. Natural predators like wolves and mountain lions effectively manage these diseases.

A wolf pack, hunting daily to feed every member, is nature's best cure. Grazing herds become sturdier and healthier with the presence of wolves because only the strongest survive being hunted.

Wolf Tourism Boosts National Park Traffic

Research done since the 1990s in Yellowstone shows a huge upsurge in park traffic as people flock to see these once critically endangered animals.

Numbers of people through the park increased by over 150,000 a year, meaning an additional five million dollars into the local economy.

Wolves are Important

Wolves are a key piece in the ecosystems they inhabit. Their ecological role in the environment is noticed in a variety of ways when they are removed.

Animal populations are thrown out of balance and the health of the surrounding plants and animals suffers.

Every ecosystem is a careful balance of elements, from the type of plants and water source available to the food chain that rises from them. Remove any one of the pieces and there will be negative effects on the remainder.

Nature is a beautiful gift that needs to be protected, and that means all parts. Wolves are an integral link in the chain. Their removal led to noticeable chaos in the environments they left behind.

Wolf reintroduction into national parks and the subsequent rebalancing that took place is proof that nature really does know best.