Friday, March 20, 2015

How #wolves have—and haven’t—transformed Yellowstone

Twenty years ago this month, biologists in Yellowstone National Park set radio collars on six wolves, opened the door of their pen, and watched them bound away. Today, 95 wolves in 11 packs live in Yellowstone, hunting elk, deer, and bison. The wolves' return set in motion a natural—and therefore uncontrolled—experiment that is still unfolding, and which offers biologists a rare opportunity to observe predator-prey relations among large mammals.

Yet the wolves are only one of many such natural experiments playing out in Yellowstone, and some scientists are cautious about attributing all the park's recent changes solely to these carnivores. Although most people think of Yellowstone as a pristine wilderness barely touched by people, at least in its early days, nothing could be further from the truth. Since its founding in 1872, the park has been treated as a living laboratory, subject to shifting biases and ideas about how best to manage it. From shooting every last wolf to managing the bison like livestock, each intervention has had long-lasting consequences that scientists are still trying to understand and correct.

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