Reflecting on 40 years since wolves were reintroduced in Yellowstone

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  • DANIEL STAHLER/National Park Service Yellowstone wolves hunt mostly in the morning and evening, according to a Utah State University study, giving elk respite from wolf attacks at night and midday.

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    Boyce

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    Scientists have shown that a ‘landscape of fear’ does not keep Yellowstone elk from using risky habitats where wolves kill them. Elk use nightly lulls in wolf activity to safely access dangerous areas. (Photo by CHAD WILERMUTH)

  • DANIEL STAHLER/National Park Service Yellowstone wolves hunt mostly in the morning and evening, according to a Utah State University study, giving elk respite from wolf attacks at night and midday.

  • 1

    Boyce

  • 2

    Scientists have shown that a ‘landscape of fear’ does not keep Yellowstone elk from using risky habitats where wolves kill them. Elk use nightly lulls in wolf activity to safely access dangerous areas. (Photo by CHAD WILERMUTH)

More than 40 years ago a young Mark Boyce landed his first teaching job at the University of Wyoming’s Department of Zoology and Physiology.

In that inaugural year he made his initial visit to nearby Yellowstone National Park and soon after began teaching a field course there.

“Suddenly I was in the thick of things,” he said in a telephone interview.

Now 68 and a professor of Ecology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, Boyce was honored in 2017 by the American Society of Mammalogists with the C. Hart Merriam Award named after an exceptionally dedicated scientist, who helped found the National Geographic Society. Merriam died in 1942.

As part of the award, Boyce presented a paper reflecting on his 40 years of work — as well as the work of some of his students and colleagues — on the reintroduction of wolves to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Boyce’s involvement began when he was asked by the park to develop a computer population model for elk to understand what would happen if wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone. So Boyce went to work, borrowing information from scientific studies to calculate how the wolf and elk populations would expand or contract. By 1988 he produced the first model, which was revised in 1992. The work was included in information submitted to Congress to bolster the National Park Service’s argument that wolves should be returned to Yellowstone.

“This was very unpopular in Wyoming at the time,” Boyce said. “The Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation wrote to the president of the University of Wyoming demanding I be fired. Fortunately the president believed in academic freedom.”

Wolves return

“In 1995, 14 wolves from Alberta were released in Yellowstone, supplemented by another 17 Canadian wolves in 1996,” Boyce wrote.

For the first 10 years after wolf reintroduction, Boyce said he was “pretty smug” about how well his model followed what happened in the park. But when he dug into the model a third time he found that some of the parameters were wrong.

“Ninety-five percent of the prey was elk in the first decade,” he said. “So that was wrong.”

Wolves, he had predicted, were supposed to dine on other species like deer, moose and the occasional bison as well, but elk proved to be by far the most popular item on the big canines’ menu.

“He makes some really good points about how hard it is to predict ecological conditions,” said Merav Ben-David, a professor and head of the University of Wyoming’s Zoology and Physiology department. “We have to be careful when we model because ecological ecosystems are complicated and we can’t predict how things will change,” she said.

Boyce also discovered that wolves and human hunters influenced elk populations in very different ways.

“Another shortcoming was failure to recognize the strong age selectivity by wolves and hunters,” Boyce wrote. “Hunters preferentially kill bulls, but when they kill cow elk they primarily kill prime-age females of high reproductive value; cows learn to avoid hunters to the extent that individuals older than about 9-10 are essentially ‘bullet proof.’”

Yellowstone wolf biologist Doug Smith has often referred to the park’s Northern Range herd as some of the toughest elk around.

“In contrast, wolves killed primarily young and old (elk), and as a consequence the per-capita influence of hunters on elk populations was much greater than for those killed by wolves.

“Even after making these adjustments, however, during the second decade after wolf reintroduction, the number of elk averaged lower than predicted by the simulation model.

“I believe that this is because bear (Ursus arctos and U. americanus) and cougar (P. concolor) predation was higher than we had anticipated. In particular, grizzly bears have been shown to be highly effective predators on elk calves reducing recruitment by about seven calves/100 cows.”

One of the things Boyce said left out said John Winnie Jr. an associate professor of Ecology at Montana State University in Bozeman, in an email, is the effect of wolves on elk pregnancy rates.

The presence of a predator on the landscape reduces prey pregnancy rates, Winnie Jr. said.

Since the reintroduction of wolves, elk populations have fallen from about 19,000 in 1995 to about 5,000 the last three years. Likewise, wolf numbers have dropped from a high of about 170 in 2003 to roughly 100 now, mirroring a decline in the availability of their main prey — elk.

Another change has been the bison population’s growth on the Northern Range, replacing elk as the primary grazers. This coincides with more elk have spending winters outside the park in the safer confines of the Paradise Valley where wolves can be shot by hunters.

“Consequently, change in the distribution of large herbivores in the park has been one of the most significant responses to wolf predation, and this was not anticipated in our predator-prey models,” Boyce wrote.

As bison populations have grown on the Northern Range, Yellowstone officials have struggled with how to manage winter bison migrations into Montana near the North Entrance at Gardiner. A 20-something Mark Boyce could never have foreseen how Yellowstone would change in the past 40 years, but he has at least one prediction of what may be to come.

“The most immediate threat to this park policy is the increasing bison population that has precipitated political pressure to limit their abundance for fear that heavy grazing and browsing by bison might ‘damage’ vegetation,” Boyce wrote. “We do not know how bison will affect Yellowstone, but surely we will learn a great deal more if we allow the bison population to take its course rather than intervening in a fashion that will be arbitrary to the underlying ecological system.”

Boyce said one result of increasing bison numbers may mean wolves will kill more yearling bison. Wolf studies in the park have shown a wolf pack living mainly in a remote area of the park already concentrates on killing bison in the winter, when snow is deep and the animals are more vulnerable.

A change in Yellowstone wolves’ appetite for bison might be even more accentuated if additional elk begin residing outside the park, giving wolves fewer prey options, Boyce noted.

“It remains to be seen what will happen there,” Boyce said. “I should probably bet a case of beer on how things will roll out.”

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