Wolves! Voracious Predator or Vital Partner?

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Meet the Jackson Hole Wolves Discovering Habits and Behaviors

Are wolves voracious, evil predators, or are they a vital part of our ecosystem? The answer depends on who you ask.

Ranchers and farmers detest wolves. They see them as responsible for the destruction of livestock. There is no doubt there is wolf predation. A Montana study showed a loss of 500 sheep to wolves in 2003, while coyotes killed over 11,000. When disease, weather, eagles, bears, and foxes are added to the mix, documented livestock losses to wolves account for less than 1%. Yet wolves arouse almost violent feelings of anger in some.

Why? One reason is we are socialized from an early age to believe wolves are evil. Think about Red Riding Hood, the Three Little Pigs, the “wolves at the door”.

Ask wildlife scientists and conservationists, and you will get an entirely different answer. They see wolves as a vital part of a balanced ecosystem. One the best examples of this is the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

grey wolf
close-up of a wolf pack in Wyoming
Two wolves standing in the forrest by each other

Wolf Predators or Ecosystem Saviors

Exploring the Controversial Role of Wolves in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem

  • Wolves and Ranchers: A Clash of Perspectives

  • The Complex Web of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem

  • A Glimpse into Wolf Dynamics

  • Wolves as Keystone Predators

An Ecosystem in Decline

The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) is a huge swath of land covering more than 20 million acres. It includes Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park, plus adjacent parts of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho.

Wolves were eliminated from this area in the mid 1920’s. Their disappearance removed the major factor controlling the elk population. As a result, the elk population exploded. By the mid 1960’s, oversized elk herds were hanging out in the river and stream beds. They were grazing the young willow, cottonwood, and aspen trees down to the ground. Without young trees to replenish them, the forests began to decline. Beaver disappeared from the valley.

The coyote population also boomed. While coyotes will feed on dead elk, they don’t hunt them. Their natural diet is small ground mammals such as ground squirrels, moles, chipmunks, etc. As the ground mammals disappeared, other predators such as foxes, hawks, and eagles declined sharply.

A Solution for Re-balance

Conservationists saw the reintroduction of the Gray Wolf as the solution to rebalance the ecosystem. Farmers and ranchers were vehemently opposed.

Finally, the Federal Government forged a compromise. In January of 1995 and January of 1996 a total of 66 Canadian Grey Wolves were released in Yellowstone National Park and adjacent Idaho.

These are truly gorgeous animals. Gray wolves are large. Males are 5 to 6.5 feet long, 26 to 32 inches at the shoulder and weigh 70 to 115 pounds. Females are slightly smaller. Wolves reach adult size in about a year from birth.

They can live up to 13 yrs. in the wild. Right now, wolves are fighting for pack hierarchy and territorial boundaries. Come mid-February, the alphas will mate and assure their legacy.

Their coats range in color from stark white to pitch black. Most wolves are a golden or tawny brown color with streaks of white or black. The interesting thing about the black wolves is they possess a gene called the K- locus that causes the solid black color. DNA studies have shown this gene came from cross-breeding with domestic dogs thousands of years ago.

They have intelligent-looking faces. Their eyes are blue when born. At about 8 weeks of age, the color changes to yellow, amber, orange, or even brown.

Wolves have a tight social structure. They run in packs that average from 4 to 8, but can number as high as 30. They are run by an Alpha male. His mate is the Beta female. There is a strict hierarchy to the pack with each member filling an important function. Once pups grow into adults, they are dispersed from their parents’ packs. They then pair off with other dispersed wolves and form their own packs.

In the GYE, wolves feed on Elk, Moose, Bison and Deer. They may also eat nuts, berries, and small mammals. An individual wolf needs to eat an average of 3.7 pounds of meat per day for minimum survival. Wolves may not eat for week, and then gorge themselves on 20 pounds of meat from a kill. Two Yellowstone studies estimated their diet consisted of around 80% elk.

Was Re-balance Achieved?

As one of the top predators in the GYE, the Gray Wolves made their presence known very quickly. A little more than two years later, half the coyotes were either killed or driven out. With the coyotes gone, small mammal populations began to rise. This allowed the return of other predators such as foxes and hawks.

The greatest effect was on the elk herds. Now hunted by the wolves, the elk were forced to keep moving. They were no longer able to linger long enough to completely destroy the young cottonwood and aspen trees. By 2006 the elk population was cut in half. This sounds harsh, but the reduced population is in balance with what the land can sustain.

In addition, when wolves kill elk, other predators such as coyotes, foxes, eagles, and ravens feed on the carcasses as well. This helps sustain their populations and smooth out the boom and bust population shifts.

As the forests began to regenerate, the beaver returned.

Today, some 20-odd years after the reintroduction of the Gray Wolf the populations have indeed grown. As of December 31, 2015, there were at least 1,704 wolves in 282 packs (including 95 breeding pairs) in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Ongoing studies show the positive effects wolves are having on Yellowstone, Grand Teton National Park, and the GYE.

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