The gray wolf, a pack-hunting member of the dog family, is loved and hated by many, and the story of their conservation is a reminder of how important saving just one species can be to a host of other plants and animals.
Gray wolves (Canis lupus), also called timber wolves, are the largest member of the dog family alive today, and the ancestor of man’s best friend. They usually stand around 26-32 inches tall at the shoulder and weigh between 55 and 130 pounds depending on gender (males are larger than the females) and subspecies. Despite their name, the gray wolf isn’t always gray. They can also range from black to almost white.
These animals are very adaptable, capable of thriving in forests, deserts, grasslands and even the Arctic tundra, though unlike their smaller cousin, the coyote, they prefer to steer clear of humans when possible.
Gray wolves are found across the northern hemisphere, but let’s primarily focus on populations living in North America. These predators once lived across almost the entire continent, from Alaska to Mexico, and from California to North Carolina, Vermont and Florida. The reason for their demise?
As you might have guessed, overhunting and habitat loss. As European settlers set up residence on the North American continent, so did their livestock. Cows, sheep, goats and other domestic animals competed with native deer and other animals for food. With their prey on the decline, the wolves turned to an alternative source of food, and this was often livestock, much to the dismay of farmers. As a result, wolves, bears, cougars and other predators were shot, trapped or poisoned in great numbers to protect not only livestock, but also deer and other wildlife considered “more desirable” (people had a strange outlook on ecology back in those days).
The unregulated hunting of wolves and other predators continued with the founding of Yellowstone National Park in 1872, even within the park itself! It may seem strange that this was considered acceptable behavior in a national park.
However, we should bear in mind that these were the days before sports hunters, conservation groups and other concerned parties who wanted to ensure wild animal populations remained steady, and long before people realized how important individual species are to the health of the entire ecosystem.
It was the year 1926 when the last confirmed gray wolf was shot in Yellowstone (though alleged sightings continued to occur) and the species was completely wiped out in the lower 48 states by the mid-1990s.
Wildlife biologist Doug Smith compares the ecological kickback caused by the loss of wolves in Yellowstone to “… kicking a pebble down a mountain slope where conditions are just right that a falling pebble could trigger an avalanche of change.”
With no wolves to prey on them, the elk population skyrocketed. Elk consumed too much vegetation in a given place in a short time span, causing aspen, cottonwood and yellow willow trees to decline. This, in turn, was bad news for beavers, which need the willows to get through Yellowstone’s long winter months.
By 1968, the elk ate so much vegetation that their numbers dropped to around a third of their current numbers, and only one beaver colony still clung to existence in the park by 1995. Without a high population of beavers and the dams they built, many fish and birds lost their habitat.
Thankfully, conservationists realized the problems caused by the lack of wolves in the lower 48 and put forward effort for change. In 1974, the gray wolf was added to the Endangered Species List and strict hunting regulations were put in place. Between 1995 and 1996, 10 gray wolves from northwestern Montana were moved and released into the wilds of Yellowstone National Park. Since then, the elk population has stabilized, and the numbers of beavers have risen again, allowing many species dependant on the ponds beavers create to flourish.
The conservation success of gray wolves in Yellowstone and the surrounding areas in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming provide us with an important lesson. Species don’t exist as isolated entities, as they require a network of other species in order to thrive. Take one species out of the equation and many others will be affected.
Disclaimer: Due to the controversial nature of wolves and their relationship with humans, I deem it necessary to clarify that this article merely advocates the survival of the wolf species as a whole, and does not take sides on people’s individual rights to shoot wolves on their property.
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