In surprising ways, wolves will restore natural balance

  • Gray wolf

    Tracy Brooks, Mission Wolf, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

When wolves arrived in Yellowstone last month, it was as though a boulder were tossed into a lake: the ripples began to spread, and eventually they will touch everything.

As trucks carrying the predators entered the park, coyotes nearby began to howl; now they yip and sing almost every hour near the wolf pens.

"I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if the coyotes know something's up," says Mike Phillips, wolf recovery coordinator in Yellowstone. "The dog world is real simple: The big dog beats up the little dog. And the coyote's the little dog in the park now."

Consider the tanager, a small migratory bird that eats decaying elk carcasses. When wolves again roam Yellowstone, killing and feasting upon the vast elk herds, more meat will become available for tanagers.

If that translates into more or healthier birds, it could make their vivid lemon and scarlet plumage a more common sight in places as far away as the jungles of Costa Rica, where the birds winter.

More carcasses also mean more leavings for other residents such as ravens and magpies, says Wayne Brewster, a wolf specialist for the Park Service. The list of beneficiaries stretches, Brewster says, to bugs, maggots, worms and the creatures that eat them.

The ripples spread. Coyotes, Brewster explains, may scavenge a few handouts from wolf leavings but they should keep their nose to the wind. Cocky, bold and abundant for now, they could also fill a wolf's belly.

Wolves killing coyotes could spread ripples in surprising ways, Brewster says. "You're not going to have as many juvenile coyotes migrating out of Yellowstone." That might mean fewer coyotes around the lambing sheds near the park.

And since coyotes live mostly on mice, rabbits, voles and other small animals, those populations could see less pressure. Will that make it easier for owls and other raptors to make a living? Maybe.

Red foxes may also have it easier. For some reason, Brewster says, foxes co-exist with wolves better than with coyotes, meaning fox populations should grow in the park.

Elk, deer, bison and bighorn sheep communities also will see changes - in most cases decreases. Elk numbers, for example, will fluctuate 10 to 30 percent below where they would be with no wolves in the park. "The lows won't be so low and the highs won't be so high," Brewster says. That could well reduce the number of late-season elk tags outside the park, angering some hunters. But it also could change grazing patterns, which alter vegetation, which affects runoff and erosion, which have a big impact on trout and everything that catches them, including people.

The restoration of wolves under the Endangered Species Act is also "the first time we've ever restored a large carnivore to a Western national park," says John Varley, a park biologist for 22 years, who sports wolf posters on his walls. "Therefore, it's precedent-setting. We've broken a barrier here."

Already, talk among wolf advocates has shifted to other pieces of good wolf country: Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. Varley says he fully expects to see a "short-term backlash" against the Endangered Species Act, which is up for re-authorization by a new and more conservative Congress. But he thinks the act has worked well in Yellowstone.

He points to bald eagle and peregrine falcon numbers that are up sharply. Grizzlies are doing well enough that some officials want to delist them. Only whooping cranes have seen little improvement.

Varley describes Yellowstone's northern range as "wolf heaven," a place the hungry canids will have little reason to leave even if their numbers reach the goal of 10 packs of 10 animals apiece over the next decade.

"I believe with all my heart," he says, "that livestock deaths will be limited and that wolf opponents will change their minds. Once (opponents) start dealing with the actual entity instead of an idea, they'll get used to having wolves around," Brewster predicts. "They aren't necessarily the prince of darkness."

Varley says the Park Service has a great deal to gain from the return of wolves, mainly respect for following through and making a park ecosystem healthier.

"I don't think I have ever seen the people who work in this park so excited," he says. "There's a general level of glee around here."

For now, the wolves are still in their one-acre pens where they pace and hear the hourly yips of coyotes, and where they feed on prey they haven't yet had to bring down.

Varley says, "They're ripping apart a Yellowstone elk for the first time in 60 years. And they're looking for a hole in that fence."

Scott McMillion reports for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle in Montana.

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