Posted: 06 Dec 2012
Jamie Rappaport Clark, President and CEO
I am an incredibly lucky biologist. Every year I am privileged to join dozens of Defenders of Wildlife friends and their families in Yellowstone National Park. Our mission: to watch wolves! My husband Jim, my son Carson and I look forward to this trip every year as we monitor wolf recovery and see firsthand the amazing rebound of a species on the brink of extinction in the lower 48.
One of the highlights of the trip is to get some time with some of the wolf biologists that are on the ground studying wolves all year long. Doug Smith, Dan Stahler, Erin Albers, and others do a fantastic job tracking about a dozen packs throughout the park. The research they have been doing for the past 17 years has been invaluable to wolf conservation and behavior studies worldwide.
That’s why it is so disturbing to see some of these very same wolves gunned down during the current hunting season. Unfortunately, wolves don’t understand borders and many of the park wolves are used to seeing people. They don’t know that it’s another world outside of the park boundaries, or that people could mean danger outside the park. Already, ten Yellowstone wolves have been killed; seven of them with radio research collars, possibly putting decades of wolf research in jeopardy.
We learn so much from Yellowstone research that helps us better understand and manage wolves, not only in Yellowstone but throughout the Northern Rockies and everywhere wolves now find a home. One of the most important research efforts is on predator-prey relationships. We now better understand what types of species wolves prey on, how much they eat, how they work as a pack and what animals rely on the remains of those kills for their own survival. The research also shows us how other animals behave in the presence of wolves. Further research indicates that wolves impact numerous species, a term some biologists refer to as “trophic cascades.”
One theory is that wolves may influence elk behavior and cause them to spend less time browsing the valley and streams of Yellowstone. This has allowed willows and other trees and brush to flourish, providing richer habitat for beaver, fish, birds and amphibians. We might never have known all of the impressive and important roles that wolves play if we had not had data from the years of extensive research on Yellowstone wolves.
Other research provides data on disease, genetics, breeding, kill rates, pup survival and mortality. Yellowstone is considered by scientists world-wide to be the premier landscape for wolf research because of how visible the wolves are in Yellowstone’s northern range. In addition to the tragedy of these iconic wolves being killed, we are losing a plethora of research with the loss of each collared Yellowstone wolf.
Yellowstone wolves are valuable for the data they generate that help us understand more about wolves and the important role they play in the ecosystem. But they are also important to people. During the first years of wolf reintroduction, biologists had no idea that the newly-released wolves in the northern range of Yellowstone would be so visible to researchers and to the many visitors who visit the park every year. Tens of thousands of people are lucky enough to come to Yellowstone every year to watch the wolves that make this great park their home. I know many photographers and filmmakers that have made their living following the wolf packs and capturing their personalities and behaviors; tour guides also benefit from the desire of tourists to see wolves. And all of these people spend money in the park and in the local communities — on the order of $35 million annually, and leveraging a total economic impact of about $70 million per year.
The killing of these Yellowstone wolves certainly brings the management policies of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana into clear focus. The loss of these wolves — the most protected in the region, until they set foot outside Yellowstone National Park — provides a window into what is happening to wolves throughout the Northern Rockies, where wolves have few and in some cases no protections. Already, 257 wolves have been killed so far this hunting season, and more than 800 have died since Congress removed federal protections for wolves in the core of the Rockies. It’s hard to believe that this is an animal that only last year was protected as an endangered species.
The states of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming need to step up and work with the park officials to reduce these serious impacts on wolf research efforts. America has a lot invested in this research and in these wolves. We should be proud that we are leaders in wolf conservation research and take steps now to avoid the losses that occurred this year. We cannot let one of the most spectacular conservation accomplishments of the last century be undermined by wrong-headed management practices. It’s time we all take a stand and let the states surrounding Yellowstone know that their actions are unacceptable, and we need to work together to ensure a brighter future not only for the wolves in Yellowstone but for those throughout the region.