How saving the wolf saved day in Yellowstone

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Wolf Nation: The Life, Death, and Return of Wild American Wolves
Hachette – Merloyd Lawrence (2017)
RRP $36.85

One group did not rejoice at the return of the grey wolf to Yellowstone National Park in 1995 – the coyotes. The last wolves in Yellowstone had been killed in 1926 and without them the coyotes had become abundant. In a healthy ecosystem, wolves and coyotes compete – usually with the wolves simply running the coyotes off their territory. But, especially when the numbers are so high, wolves will kill and eat the smaller canines – easy prey. So it was in Yellowstone.

It was not the only dramatic change from the apex predator returning to its old hood. Many of those changes are counter-intuitive, with numbers of prey animals rising even as the wolves feed off them.

These days there are at least 98 wolves in 10 packs living primarily in Yellowstone. There are also three times as many elk in the park as in 1968. There was only one beaver colony in 1995 but now the park is home to at least nine. Throughout the ecosystem the effect of the return of the wolf is being felt, and in an overwhelmingly positive way.

When, for example, the elk population was a third of what it is today, willow stands along streams were rapidly dying out, browsed out of business by the foraging ruminants. Today, with wolves keeping the elk on the move, willows are in robust good health, and doing a good job shoring up river banks against erosion.

Usually the term “trophic top-down cascade” has negative connotations as ecologists describe the devastating flow-on effects of removing a top predator. In the case of Yellowstone the cascade is a positive, with the return of the apex predators having a beneficial effect on systems way beyond willows and beavers.

Despite such positive outcomes, easily demonstrated, there is still a long way to go. As renowned nature writer Brenda Peterson notes: “To return wolves to their native lands will take not just time but also a change in cultural values – an evolution in the American character.”

In 1872 when Yellowstone Park was created, the grey wolf population was already in decline across Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. The extermination gathered pace in the early years of the 20th century with government predator control programs. By the 1920s they were gone. For Peterson that was a loss, not just for the ecosystem but for the culture.

Wolf Nation takes a comprehensive look at the 300-year history of wild wolves in America and their complicated relations with humans living there.

To the early settlers, the wolf was an enemy to be treated like the wilderness itself – something to be subdued and excluded. Even today, while some enlightened farmers learn to live beside the animals, others want to return to the old ways of driving them to destruction.

As Peterson notes, these creatures are the most misunderstood and maligned of animals while at the same time among the most majestic and mysterious of all our creatures. They are a paradox, says pioneering wolf biologist Douglas Smith –  creatures of extraordinary strength, with an ability to thrive given half a chance, but also a reminder of how frail natural vitality can be when humans are determined to wipe it from the face of the Earth.

Peterson’s is a comprehensive look at these animals – their behaviour and biology, why they howl and how they hunt, how alpha females can lead a family pack, and how their presence has improved every ecology to which they have returned.

She tracks individual animals, such as the larger-than-life Yellowstone female 832F – also known as 06 Female, for the year of her birth – perhaps the most famous wolf in the world.

As matriarch of Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley Pack, 06 earned a reputation as an amazing hunter until she was shot dead one day in 2013, just 24 kilometres east of the park in Wyoming. Her obit appeared in The New York Times and her death became a focus of the clash between the competing beliefs of wildlife management, scientists and hunting advocates.

Many believed the animal was shot precisely to aggravate the wolves’ supporters. “They’ve been waiting 17 years in Wyoming to kill wolves,” said Laurie Lyman, a retired schoolteacher and one of the most dedicated wolf-watchers of Yellowstone, at the time. “They wanted to get those wolves because it hurts the people who watch them. They did it to stick it to us.”

For 06’s family it was a tragedy, too, Peterson notes: “After 06 was shot, her mate, 755M left his family… Animals mourn. We know that much from much-documented research about animal emotions and behaviour.” (In another surprising twist, 755M, against the odds, survived the loss of his mate and the hunting support she provided. One of 755’s daughters, wolf 926, became matriarch of her own Lamar Valley pack.)

But 06 did not die in vain. Whatever the hunter’s motives, the killing did much to fire up the determination of wolves’ supporters – and there are many, including those ranchers who have learned to live alongside the wolves.

There is much to play for. As Peterson concludes, “the wolf nation must thrive if we are to make the world wild and whole again”.

Read an excerpt of the book here.

Author Brenda Peterson’s Twitter handle is @BrendaSPeterson

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