How wolves in Yellowstone help illustrate the importance of hunting
Back in 1995, many people struggled to comprehend what scientists at Yellowstone National Park were up to.
After 70 years of a wolf-free ecosystem within the 2,219,789-acre park, experts wanted to re-introduce the predator.
The news caused quite a stir at the time as many feared the wolves would decimate the deer, elk and other prey animals throughout the 63-mile by 54-mile terrain.
There was much concern about how it would damage the park’s ecosystem and cause a large ripple effect across species lines.
But the scientists and other wildlife officials proceeded with the plan, capturing 14 wolves in January 1995 from Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada, and releasing them into Yellowstone after a three-month acclimation period. A year later, 17 additional Canadian wolves were released into Yellowstone. These were the last wolves relocated into the park within the past 18 years.
Natural reproduction and survival patterns took things from there, with as many as 171 wolves prowling the park as recently as 2007.
In 2009, the wolves in that part of the country were officially removed from the endangered species list and since then, thanks to human hunting efforts, the population has fluctuated to a more sustainable level.
Why is this important? Why would I reference a Wyoming wolf story on a Pennsylvania outdoors blog?
Well, because of two words: Trophic cascade.
As many had feared, the wolf introduction had a massive effect on all levels of the ecosystem.
Of course, the wolves reduced the local deer herd, but more importantly, they changed the behavior of the deer and elk populations. They began to avoid certain areas where the wolves could more easily attack them, such as valleys and other low-lying regions.
This allowed the plant life to explode, and quickly forests of Aspen and other species were sprouting. This attracted more varieties of birds and other wildlife. Beavers, for example, saw an exponential growth as more and more willow was left ungrazed by elk. In 2001, only one beaver dam was known within Yellowstone. By 2011, that number jumped to nine dams.
The additional plant life helped to reduce erosion and, with the beaver dams, started altering the course of rivers and other waterways. This created new pond and marsh habitats for moose, otters, mink, wading birds, waterfowl, fish, amphibians and more.
The carcasses left behind by wolf kills created more scavenging opportunities, and a population boom, for ravens, wolverines, bald eagles, golden eagles, grizzly bears, black bears, jays, magpies, martens and coyotes. More plant life and better habitat drew more rabbits, mice and other critters that, in turn, helped increase hawk, fox and badger numbers.
This top-down effect of re-introducing an “apex” predator is called trophic cascade.
All of this information came to me thanks to a co-worker who shared a link to a recently posted four-minute YouTube video that explained this whole phenomenon very well. It was an inspiring video, and you can view it, if you haven’t already, above.
Why does this all fascinate me so much? Because of two very important reasons.
First, the situation does a great job of illustrating just how interconnected our ecosystems really can be. One simple change nearly two decades ago has drastically altered the natural enviroment for so many species. For me, the video was a clear reminder of how important our roles are as stewards of our natural resources.
Secondly, the Yellowstone scenario shows the importance of hunting. Like wolves, we are apex predators. We have a place in the natural flow of things, and this video does a good job of explaining that.
In an age where antihunters are more vocal than ever, the rest of us need ways to illustrate the benefits of hunting as a critical wildlife management tool — not just some outdated, primitive sport for bloodthirsty rednecks as mainstream society suggests.
Hunting is more than putting food on the family’s dinner table. It affects more than the people who suit up in fluorescent orange every fall during our local rite of outdoors passage.
Let’s take it seriously — from the first-time youth fresh out of Hunter-Trapper Education classes to the wily veteran outdoorsman. And let’s help educate the public on how we are conservationists first and foremost.