BY: BROOKLYN PINHEIRO
Walking through Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming you’ll be happy to see an abundance of willow and aspen trees and hear the melodies of song-birds, a very different impression than that of 20 years ago. This change in the park’s ecosystem is due in part to the restoration of wolves in the area that has rejuvenated the environment.
By the 1930s people had killed off all the wolves in the park. Wolves were seen as competitors in the hunting of elk so killing off the population was done in part to make human survival easier. It was also done during a time where the euro-centric public discourse favoured civility, of which the wolf represented the opposite.
Then, due to a changing attitude toward the environment in the 1970s and the creation of the Endangered Species Act, there began a movement to bring back wolves to the area. Finally after much consideration and public debate in 1995, 41 wolves were taken from areas in western Canada, tagged, and transported to Yellowstone National Park over a period of three years. Once taken to the park the new wolves were hesitant to leave their cages, now 20 years later the population has reached its carrying capacity of around 100 wolves.
Bringing wolves into the area again is thought to have changed the ecosystem of the park. “Wolves have shown us that top-down control is central to ecosystems,” said Doug Smith, project leader of the Yellowstone wolves restoration project.
Top-down control refers to the importance of large carnivores being present in an area. When wolves were introduced again it meant that elk had another predator to worry about, causing them to roam more to avoid being hunted. The more the elk moved around to survive, the more trees and bushes were able to grow. The growth in foliage provided more food and habitat for other animals like beavers and birds. It’s estimated that the damn from the increased beaver population will increase the insect, reptile and fish population as well.
While there is a clear development of the environment over the last 20 years, wolves are not the only predator responsible for the change. Cougars, which also ceased to roam in the park, ended up returning on there own, and the bear population also increased to its stable amount.
However, the wolves do deserve credit for increasing the economy greatly in the 21st century. Four million people a year vying to see wolves in their natural habitat have brought in an increase of $35 million to local economy annually.
“Everyone talks about what the wolves have done for the economy but the most important thing they did is help people,” said Smith. “We crave something real. People come to Yellowstone and they can’t get enough of this. There’s no bars, it’s not a zoo.”