By Wendy von Kalinowski
Guest Columnist 

What is a wolf - a bigger view

 

Last updated 8/22/2023 at 11:37am



If someone were to ask me, “What is a wolf?” I’d pause, as there is no simple answer. They are a dynamically complex species, legendary in fiction and lore; historically persecuted, used when convenient as an image for sport teams, travel trailers, movie villains, and even insurance companies. Wolves are primarily misunderstood and all too often marginalized.

I am an avid “wolf watcher” returning annually to watch the wolves in Yellowstone National Park (YNP). Personally, I am fascinated by the wolf’s family social dynamics which reflect many of our own social family behaviors. Although I prefer to focus on their pack life, a bigger view will give us a look at their relationship to nature and why they are truly important. Again it is complex, because the wolf as an apex predator is the key to a balanced and healthy ecosystem.

Due to a unique experiment, when wolves were first reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in 1995 – 1997, we have been fortunate to witness the unexpected changes that wolves were the catalyst of. In the last 25- plus years, biologists have been able to study wolves in the wild after more than 70 years of absence, and the impacts that they have made on the landscape. Initially the goal was to restore wolves to help balance the void of top predators due to the extirpation policies of wolves and cougars in national parks and states alike, and indirectly their absence allowed for the over-population of other species such as elk, deer, and coyotes. However, what they discovered was far broader and more significant in restoring the entire landscape to a naturally balanced ecosystem.

At the time of wolf reintroduction, YNP was a greatly altered environment. Without its top predators of wolves and cougars, which primarily prey on elk, herds overgrazed meadows and streams, and populations swelled in extremes. Montana and YNP had to cull herds, trying to reduce their numbers.

It may be hard to imagine how the role of one species can effectively change an ecosystem from the top down, but the wolf did! Through the process of trophic cascade, wolves reestablished bio- diversity.

With wolves now living on the YNP landscape, elk were forced to move more frequently in their grazing patterns. Tender grasses, willow, and new aspen shoots were allowed to grow and eventually mature. Where stream and river riparian zones were previously eroded, banks became stabilized, roots formed, and shrubs and trees grew to provide shade and habitat for other species. Increased shade along waterways encouraged growth in trout populations, which benefited returning residents of river otter, osprey, golden and bald eagles. With an increase in willows, beavers returned and built dams creating new wetlands, which benefited other species including amphibians.

In the pre-wolf landscape coyotes had become the primary predator. They had greatly reduced diverse populations of rodents and other smaller animals, such as hares and rabbits, thereby directly reducing the needed food source for birds of prey and other mammals. With wolves on the scene the coyote population was naturally reduced, as wolves will kill coyotes, but populations of foxes, lynx, bobcats, wolverines, pine martens, and badgers also increased as more food was now available. Scavenger animals such as vultures, eagles, crows, ravens and even grizzly bears now had new partners to help support their food intake.

As carcasses were consumed and distributed along the landscape, their decomposition supported beetles and other invertebrates thus providing nutrients to the soil and vegetation. Plants that were not allowed to flower from the intense grazing of elk now bloomed, attracting pollinators and other insects. Songbirds returned to find a variety of food and restored native habitat. The landscape had radically changed, bringing in a healthy and rich biodiverse ecology.

All because a wolf, a keystone predator, was back on the landscape as nature intended! The wolf is nature and we often forget that we humans are part of nature (we even share 84 percent DNA with wolves and dogs alike, and our beloved dogs share 99 percent DNA with wolves), yet we have a long history of trying to manage nature to benefit us in the short-term. With wolves now dispersing through Oregon and some taking up residence here in Central Oregon, what will their new story become on this landscape? Will we have the patience to fully see their significance? I believe we still have much to learn, both from wolves and our human place in nature. If we can understand what a wolf is, can we learn to value it?

 

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