Twenty years of Yellowstone wolves
October 20, 2016
A wolf is pictured in a shipping container in 1995 when wolves were reintroduced in Yellowstone National Park. Doug Smith recently spoke about 20 years of wolves in Yellowstone. Photo courtesy Jim Peaco, National Park Service
“Yellowstone: the best place in the world to see wolves,” said Doug Smith.
Smith, senior wildlife biologist in Yellowstone National Park, discussed reintroduction and social tolerance of wolves at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West last week.
His lecture was titled, “The Wolves of Yellowstone: The First 20 Years.”
Whether in competition for food or to protect their stock, humans have been at war with wolves for 10,000 years, Smith said.
Ed Bangs, former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Wolf Recovery coordinator, once said the most important aspect of wolf recovery was changing people’s attitudes.
In the 1930s, the maxim was, “the only good wolf is a dead wolf,” Smith said.
By 1926, all predators were extirpated in Yellowstone, Smith said. Because Yellowstone’s first superintendent, Horace Albright, liked them, bears were spared.
With the wolf out of the picture, tens of thousands of Yellowstone elk were killed or relocated to control the population between 1920 and 1968, Smith said.
In 1969, the Park Service adopted natural regulation, allowing the elk population to fluctuate according to environmental conditions.
Between 1985-94, the northern elk population often exceeded 16,000 animals, reaching around 19,000 for two years, according to Yellowstone Science. Smith said the National Park Service was criticized for allowing the elk population to expand from 1970 into the 1990s.
Gray wolves were reintroduced in central Idaho, Yellowstone and northwest Montana in the mid-1990s; Smith showed photos of former Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt and other notables carrying the first wolf in 1995.
Smith said that even without a government-led reintroduction, wolves would likely have colonized Yellowstone on their own.
There is a theory that wolves are “ecosystem engineers.” Killing elk means fewer elk consuming vegetation, resulting in increases in aspen and willow growth, according to Yellowstone Science. By the mid 2000s, the northern elk population was 6,000 or less.
Since 2008 — with an average of 100 wolves populating 10 packs — elk population growth has been flat, Smith said. It would appear that wolves have balanced elk numbers, but it is difficult to convince people that less elk is better, Smith said.
Influx to stable
Over the past six to eight years, 100 elk have been fitted with radio collars so researchers can understand elk-wolf dynamics, Smith said.
Wolves take more elk in late winter when the ungulates are most vulnerable due to limited food and deep snow, Smith said. Bulls can also be imperiled in early winter after devoting all their energy to the rut, particularly if summer forage was poor.
With fewer elk, wolves are taking more bison, Smith said. Approximately one-third of those bison are scavenged.
There are approximately 5,000 bison in Yellowstone, Smith said, adding, “bison are becoming more important to wolves in Yellowstone.”
Wolves reach their prime at age 2 or 3 and die around age 5. Sixty percent are killed by other wolves, Smith said. “And they get killed by their prey.”
Elk kill more wolves attacking them in August because the wild ungulates are in their best condition, Smith said.
Wolf reproduction is high because wolf mortality is high, Smith said.
“Wolves are ferociously territorial,” he said.
The Yellowstone wolf population reached an all-time high of more than 170 animals in 2003, according to Yellowstone Science. Outbreaks of distemper knocked down the population in 1999 and 2005, but the wolf population did recover and increase, according to Yellowstone Science. After another wave of distemper in 2008, the population has exceeded 100 wolves only in 2014.
Smith’s theory is that there have been no more distemper outbreaks because the population is smaller, thus decreasing contagion.
Wolves are social animals, Smith said. Pack is synonymous with family, Smith said.
Large males increase pack success, Smith said. A pack engaging another pack of the same number in a territorial dispute will more likely win if one or more of its males is large.
In addition to wolves’ reintroduction, mountain lions have returned to Yellowstone and the Park Service figures there were more than 700 grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem last year.
Yellowstone now has more carnivores now than any time in its history, Smith said. “We are a multi-predator system.”
Four & two-legged tolerance
Wolves in and around the park are, for the most part, tolerant of humans, but not habituated, he said.
Tolerance means a wolf is accustomed to people. Habituated animals are attracted to humans, particularly their food.
Yellowstone wolves spend most of their time in the park, but a buffer zone around Yellowstone would protect wolves from hunters when they exit the park, Smith said.
Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem wolves were briefly removed from Endangered Species Act protections and hunted in Wyoming starting in 2012, but the animals were placed back on the list in 2014.
While wolves were hunted, the state of Wyoming kept the harvest quota low, Smith said.
What still must be reckoned with, he said, is what level of hunting will impact the wolf population.
To examine and attach radio collars, he’s shot more than 300 wolves with darts containing sedatives, Smith said. His largest was 148 pounds.
How can the wolf gain acceptance?
“Maybe reaching people’s hearts is more important than reaching people’s minds,” Smith said. He showed a photo of the big beautiful predator.
“What would it be like without him?” Smith asked.