Sunday, September 29, 2013

Wolves in Yellowstone

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

By Sarayu Adeni

Driving through Yellowstone National Park over the summer, our guide touched upon rising tensions between the local cattle ranchers and wolves. “Out here, they have a saying,” he said. “Shoot, shovel, and shut up.”

Wolves may seem plentiful now, especially as the U.S. Department of Natural Resources removed the gray wolf from the endangered species list, along with the bald eagle, this August. But they have come a long way. In 1994, humans had completely eliminated gray wolves from Yellowstone and its surrounding areas. A species reintroduction program was implemented in 1995, which was hugely successful. Victory here, however, is a double-edged sword. While conservationists had set their sights on simply reintroducing wolves into Yellowstone, there was no overarching contingency plan for the program’s success.

The presence of a healthy wolf population in the park is crucial for controlling elk numbers. It gives way for willows and other foliage to thrive and animals dependent upon the vegetation for shelter – like birds, fish, and beavers – are then similarly allowed to flourish.

Unfortunately for cattle ranchers, however, wolves do not discriminate on prey. Wolves killed over 65 livestock in 2011 in Wyoming, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. With their livelihoods threatened, ranchers started taking matters into their own hands. They retaliate with poison, traps, and guns, thus perpetuating the same vicious cycle that extinguished Wyoming’s gray wolves in the first place.

People today may be working to protect biodiversity from human encroachment, but when animals start to encroach upon us, there is no widespread plan – even around national parks – to stop angry locals from counteracting violently, unraveling whatever progress was made.

Building awareness, especially after the implementation of a successful program like reintroducing wolves in Yellowstone, should be a vital component in conservationist strategies. It is often forgotten that humans are a part of the environment. And once you set about changing an environment that affects humans and animals alike, the work doesn’t end there.

Thankfully, there are organizations like Defenders of Wildlife, which prides itself on changing attitudes by helping rancher manage wolf attacks in eco-friendly ways, such as using air horns and flag systems near pastures. Policymakers in some states have also initiated compensation programs for livestock losses due to wildlife.

These are important steps, but the fear is that it may be too little, too late. What we should be doing is figuring out how to live our lives safely amongst what we have saved. If we don’t attempt environmental coexistence, achieving widespread sustainable development is nothing more than a howl at the moon.

Sarayu Adeni is a first-year MDP at SIPA.