I’ve tried not to take a side in this debate, but something happened the other night that finally threw me over the edge. I follow a page on Facebook that is devoted to pictures taken in the state of Wyoming. A new member in that group got the shot of a lifetime, that of the Lamar Valley Wolf Pack starting a hunt of a herd of elk. I knew the second that photo hit cyberspace, the debate over the wolves would start all over again. Less than a minute later, more than thirty comments had been made. Three—count ‘em: THREE—comments were on what a great picture it was. The rest were comments about killing the wolves and the rebuttals. (And for inquiring minds, other to comment what a lucky shot it was and to ask why people just couldn’t comment what a good picture it was and leave it at that, I didn’t respond.)
I got curious about those people screaming for the blood of the wolves and started clicking the public profiles of the people who commented negatively about the apex predator in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. 85% of them don’t even live in the state of Wyoming. The other four comments came from people who have a vested interest in seeing the wolf gone. One leads guided pack trips for elk hunts. Another works for a feed company that specializes in feed to finish out cattle prior to slaughter. One more is from a ranching family—near Wheatland on the other side of the state. Anyone want to take a guess at how big Wyoming is? One of the comments made was that wolves kill for the sheer joy of killing and that the reintroduced grey wolves are bigger and more aggressive (a claim repeatedly debunked by scientists) and this person also posted a picture of elk killed by wolves all lined up in the snow. My first thought to that was “You mean wolves kill just like trophy hunters do?” and my second thought was I never would have thought wolves would line up dead elk like that.
I started digging deeper into the effect the wolf has had on Yellowstone. Biologists call what is happening in Yellowstone over the last twenty years a trophic cascade. Usually, biologists have the depressing task of documenting what happens in an environmental situation when an integral part of the ecosystem is removed. Yellowstone offers biologists a rare and unique opportunity to document the changes when an integral and apex predator is reintroduced.
When the grey wolf was reintroduced into Yellowstone’s ecosystem, there was one colony of beavers. Twenty years later, because of that trophic cascade, there are nine beaver colonies. Because the wolves put so much pressure on the elk, the elk no longer linger in the winter along streams and rivers in Yellowstone. Because the elk no longer linger and are more migratory in their grazing patterns, the stands of young willows, aspen, and cottonwoods have a chance to grow and to provide food for the beavers through the winter. Because those stands of willows, aspens, and cottonwood are stronger, thicker, more resilient, they have helped to stabilize the river and stream banks. And yet, the elk population in Yellowstone is three times greater than it was a mere twenty years ago, even with the wolves hunting them. A study done in 2010 by Idaho Fish and Game revealed that the wolves have had minimal impact on elk populations. (https://idfg.idaho.gov/old-web/docs/wolves/articleHowling.pdf) Frankly, I’d be more worried about Chronic Wasting Disease decimating the elk herds than wolf kill (http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2015/06/researchers-make-surprising-discovery-about-spread-of-chronic-wasting-disease/#.WeK7LtNSyM8) and the effects of CWD on guided elk hunts.
Because the wolves kill coyotes, there are more rodents in Yellowstone. Because there are more rodents in the park, there are more foxes. More eagles. More badgers. More hawks. More ravens. More magpies. More of every predator that feeds on small rodents.
The wolves even benefit the bears—both black and grizzly—in Yellowstone. Because of the wolves, there is a more equitable distribution of carrion throughout the winter and into the spring. When emerging from hibernation, the bears depend on wolf-killed carrion for their first few meals in the spring.
Some conservationists, such as The Greater Yellowstone Coalition, propose responsible state-level management involving an established minimum gray wolf population, monitored by federal agencies such as U.S. Fish and Wildlife; monetary aid for ranchers who lose livestock—which Wyoming already does, and generously, I might add at seven times market value (https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-plight-of-the-wests-wolves-1507302000); and regulated, fair-chase hunting (i.e., no poisoning or trapping) of wolves in numbers based on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife reports. Revenue from hunting licenses could be used to help fund state wolf management programs. This would work fine—if Wyoming could prove itself capable of managing the wolves. Unfortunately, the state that I’ve often called my adopted home state, hasn’t proved they’re up to the task, if the manner that they’ve set up wolf hunts again is any indication. Every single trophy wolf hunting location in the state borders either Yellowstone National Park or Grand Teton National Park. The rules are set up so that hunters can actually lure the wolves out of the park with bait, wolf call, and just about any other means. The moment a wolf sets one foot out of the park boundary, they can be shot. That’s not management. And when, as has happened in the previous week, more wolves are killed in those areas than has been designated, that’s criminal mismanagement. As of October 4th, three of the trophy hunting areas have been closed and in two of them, more wolves were harvested than should have been. Just writing that word “harvested” makes me nauseous.
I also think it’s the height of stupidity that ranchers are allowed by the federal government to lease (for a mere pittance) and graze livestock on national forest land—the exact same land that the wolves roam—after spending decades and millions of tax payer dollars to re-establish not only the wolf population but also the grizzly and expect these two apex predators not to prey on cattle and sheep. Albert Einstein said that doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity.
And, I have one last thought on this. If you don’t pay property taxes in the state of Wyoming (guess what, I do!), keep your comments about killing wolves in Wyoming to yourself. We have enough people here who want to kill them. We don’t need you chiming in.
I’ve tried to see both sides. I’d like to think I’m smart enough to realize that this shouldn’t be and isn’t a simple “us vs them” argument, but unfortunately, that’s what it’s become. And, the side I’m choosing is for the wolf. I want my great grandchildren to be able to see a wolf in Yellowstone. I want them to be able to hear that haunting call echoing across a dark and star-lit landscape. We just visit Yellowstone. It’s their home. And even the ranchers who lease land adjoining Yellowstone are just visiting because those leases are only temporary.