Wolves have a reputation that’s larger than life


Ever since he ate Little Red Riding Hood’s grandma and blew down the houses of two-thirds of the little pigs, the wolf has been Big and Bad. Everyone knows what big teeth he has.

But can those gleaming incisors explain the startling decline of elk herds in the Yellowstone area?

Some people think so. Hunters and some wildlife managers are howling that the wolf, reintroduced into the ecosystem in 1995, is responsible for the roughly 50 percent decline in the northern Yellowstone elk herd.

Here are the numbers, as compiled by the Northern Yellowstone Cooperative Wildlife Working Group: In December 2006, there were 6,738 elk on Yellowstone’s northern range. This was lower than the January 2005 number of 9,545, and it’s a whole lot lower than the 19,359 elk counted in January 1994, the year before wolves were introduced.

Case closed, then. Before wolves, nearly 20,000 elk; after wolves, less than 7,000. Wolves are obviously a threat to both elk and the hunters who want to kill elk.

But upon closer examination, that conclusion is premature at best. “People give wolves these supernatural powers,” says Ed Bangs, Yellowstone wolf recovery coordinator. “It’s not about reality, and it’s not about wolves. It’s about what people think reality is and how they perceive wolves.”

One reality is that the state of Montana deliberately reduced the Yellowstone area elk population by issuing a larger number of hunting permits. The state made that decision because 19,000 elk – or even 9,000 – can’t be supported by the area. In fact, the Montana elk plan calls for a winter population that’s only 3,000-to-5,000 elk north of the park.

Another reality is the climate. In a 2005 paper in the journal Oikos, Michigan Tech University biologist John Vucetich and coauthors found that drought and hunters killing elk accounted for almost all of the decline in elk in the northern Yellowstone area between 1995 and 2004. But they considered hunting much less an impact than drought, estimating that for every elk shot by hunters, the population declined by 1.55 elk.

“To the extent that harvest and climate largely account for the decline in elk abundance,” they wrote, “wolf predation would have been ... numerically minor.”

Which is not to say wolves have no effect on game populations. Each adult wolf kills an average of 22 elk a year. There are now about 96 adult wolves in Yellowstone, so they take just over 2,000 elk a year. But the overall impact on population is less than the total number would suggest, because research shows that wolves often kill prey animals that are less likely -- for one reason or another -- to contribute to the elk gene pool in the following year. If the elk population is declining, wolf predation may accelerate the decline. If it’s growing, they may slow the growth.

One thing is sure: Wolves cause their prey to act more like wild animals. Elk spend a little more time in cover in the presence of wolves, and are more wary on open ground. This chivvying around has other impacts as well: It makes it harder for hunters to find them.

Oregon State University forestry professors William Ripple and Robert Beschta found that wolves prevent elk from spending too much time in Yellowstone’s degraded stream banks and riparian areas munching on tender saplings, with the result that these areas are recovering nicely from years of overgrazing. Ripple and Beschta call this situation, unfortunately, “the ecology of fear,” which may spur wolf advocates to come up with a happier description.

Before the federal government brought wolves back to Yellowstone, there was one beaver dam in Yellowstone. Now there are 10, because willows are growing better. Beavers have something to eat, streams are healthier, and we can thank wolves for the improvement.

The wolf controversy “isn’t about wolves or predators,” says Bangs. “This is about human values and what people think they want. People want to reduce elk density by shooting elk, not by having wolves. It’s a social and philosophical question. How much hunter success is enough? How much do you share with mountain lions and grizzly bears and wolves? The questions aren’t really biological.” For now, at least, we can’t target wolves as the primary elk killers. Blame that old standby, the weather, and Montana hunting policy for baring the bigger teeth.

Dan Whipple is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He is a writer in the Denver area of Colorado.

Apr 09, 2007 11:27 AM

I dont agree with the Wolf Introductory program at all on the AZ. NM. border, When the Wolf is taking its toll on Ranchers Livestock, domestic pets ect... Because of someone thinking they would like to have the Wolf back in the forest that they most likely will never see. Dinasaures were here once upon a time also, does that mean you are going to bring them back too?       I will tell you this the Spotted Owl, The Wolf, What they have done to our logging, Ranching, is a shame the Wolf is valued more than Human life. This Country is headed for trouble with all the people in it changing our Country to the way they think it should be.

Dec 12, 2007 05:14 PM

Oh my God!!  Bring dinosaurs back, that's the most ridicolous thing I have ever heard, and I am a mother.

As for your rude comments about Wolves, you sure don't know much.  Wolves are a part of the earth's ecosystem.  They don't just go after whatever animal they feel like.  They hunt the weak, the old, the injured and the sick.  They help strengthen them.  Granted they don't eat all of there kill.  However, what is left over gets eaten by: foxes, vulchers, vermin, birds and coyotes and that is just to name a few.  Wolves are valued but not more than life. 

Dec 21, 2007 01:53 PM

I agree with you. Wolves have a big impact on our ecosystem for the good. It is called a circle of life. If it was not for the wolves to hunt and leave some of there kill what would the birds, foxes and others eat.

We kill of the elk and deer ourselves as human then the wolves have no choice to move down to the livestock. Per facts there has only been 5 killing of cattle per year.