Fine Art Landscape Photography
The Effects on Yellowstone's Biodiversity: Five Years
with the Wolves
It's 1994 in Yellowstone's Lamar Valley. It's early spring, just after dawn. It's quiet; it's always quiet. In the valley and on the surrounding hills, there are elk, buffalo, pronghorn antelope, and more elk. The occasional car that passes through this part of the park may be bothered by one of the hundreds of coyotes that crowd the area. Anyone that wants to stop at the few turnouts to try and spot a grizzly can do so with ease because there are no crowds. Whoever parks, if they park, doesn't stay long. Lamar Valley is calm, peaceful, and beautiful. Yet, for all the wildlife that can be seen here, there is very little action.
It's the fall of 1995. There's a buzz in the air. There are just a few more cars on the road. To those visitors that don't ever read the newspapers or watch television, they can't quite figure it out, but something is just different. Something is about to happen, but what?
Fast forward again, this time it's the first spring of the new millennium. Noticeably, there are more turnouts in Lamar Valley. Before the sun is awake, cars pass by every two to three minutes. People are arriving in this part of the park much earlier now to make sure they have a prime spot for parking and viewing.
Groups of people gather, drink coffee by their cars and say hello to those they recognize from yesterday or the day before. Everyone feels each other's hope and excitement. They scan the valley, the trees on the ridge, or that big rock in the distance that always seems to move within their binoculars and spotting scopes.
Someone spots a raven hovering nearby and wonders why and exactly where it's headed. Another person sees an elk in the valley suddenly become more alert, maybe nervous. Could these be clues?
People exchange laughs and stories of what they have seen and what they have heard. Another car comes up to the small crowd that is gathering and thinks, "this must be the spot". They have one word etched on their brain. It is quite possibly their sole reason for being in the park this early. They would love to see a grizzly bear but that is now second on their list. That word? That animal? That difference? Wolves. They are back and they are changing Yellowstone and it's wildlife habitat in a big way.
In 1995, fourteen Canadian gray wolves, natives of Alberta, were released after being held in acclimation pens within Yellowstone Park. These initial wolves, named for Yellowstone's geographic locations at which they were acclimated, were the Crystal Creek, Rose Creek, and Soda Butte packs of the park's northern range. In 1996, an additional seventeen Canadian gray wolves, from British Columbia, were also acclimated and released in more widespread locations throughout the park.
At the time, wolf biologists involved with the project and enthusiasts alike had predictions, hopes, and expectations as to how the wolves would adapt to their new environment. The Project Leader, Douglas Smith, states in the background section of the 1998 annual report that the "National Park Service Policy calls for restoring native species…if adequate habitat exists to support them and the species can be managed so as not to pose a serious threat to people or property outside the park. Because of its large size and the abundant prey that existed here, Yellowstone was an obvious choice as a place where wolf restoration would have a good chance of succeeding".
At the end of 1999, a minimum of 118 wolves were present within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE); most within eleven established packs although some wolves, for now, have struck out on their own or in pairs. One of the more interesting effects of the wolf reintroduction program promised to be the impact the wolves would have on all other species that exist within Yellowstone Park. "I think what's the most important point about all (this) is that wolves are a keystone species," Doug Smith states flatly. "They are the top carnivore. I mean, they sit atop the food chain and they are the dominant carnivore in North America. If you pull them out (of the ecosystem), what kind of ecosystem do you get? (It's) dramatically, almost a 180 (degrees), different than the type of ecosystem you get when you have the top carnivore in place. What we're doing here is not just wolf recovery, that is a small part of it. It's keeping an intact, functioning ecosystem in place. I mean…we're talking about ecological integrity; not wolf reintroduction…because wolves can restructure an ecosystem."
While considering the most visible, and sometimes popular, animal species in the park, it appears grizzly bears, bald and golden eagles, and ravens benefit the most from the wolves' presence. On the flip side, it can be easily argued that the elk and coyotes may be taking the brunt of the canines' reemergence.
"I understand there has been a change in grizzlies…," Project Volunteer Susan Chin begins. "They have been taking over wolf kills and carcasses." Smith adds, "What's unusual, unlike Alaska and northern Canada, wolves have helped grizzly bears here. In about 90% of the cases, grizzly bears have won at carcasses. In Alaska, it's about 50/50." The contests between wolves and grizzlies, and who wins, only highlights the benefit the wolves are providing to Yellowstone's grizzlies. "What's important about that, is in mild winters like this one (1999-2000) where there is very, very little winter die-off of ungulates (elk, deer, etc.)," Smith detailed, "grizzly bears come out of their dens (in spring) and start looking for meat almost right away. In a year like this…without wolves, there's nothing. With wolves, there is plenty because the grizzly bears just walk up to a wolf kill and chase the wolves away."
One spotting tool wolf watchers and biologists turn to, is a band of birds circling in the sky, usually ravens. In general, the effects felt in the raptor species populations has been noticeably beneficial. "Bald and golden eagles have also benefited…because wolves don't seem to go after birds very much," Chin specified. "They (wolves) might get annoyed and sort of jump at them, but they don't…chase them down and kill them like they do with coyotes." Unless it's an elk calf, the wolves can't possibly eat an entire elk in one sitting. They generally eat as much as they can, bed down and digest a portion of their meal, go back and eat again. They may even bring food back to their den or regurgitate an undigested portion for the pups at the den. During all this resting and movement, there may often be a large amount of meat left on the carcass for the scavengers to fight over. It's basically free food for the eagles, ravens, coyotes, and other scavengers; if there isn't a grizzly in the area.
In terms of the bio-diversity of the entire ecosystem, Smith explained the noticeable element of wolf-scavenger relations in more detail. "The other very, very important sweep of species that wolves are affecting, are the scavengers. I mean, I literally did not know what a raven did in winter before wolves showed up," Smith says. "Undoubtedly, raven populations are increasing, survival rate is up, and bird size is up. You've got other animals like magpies, gray jays…that benefit from wolf carcasses. Coyotes move in, but they run a risk of getting killed. Things like red foxes don't run a risk of getting killed." Smith shrugs his shoulders. "They just don't kill foxes." While there have been obvious benefits to some species, others have not exhibited any immediate signs of assistance from the wolves. Black bears are omnivores and will scavenge a carcass, but that does not mean that they are strong or bold enough to steal a kill from a pack of wolves. Mountain lions, or cougars, have had some interaction at carcasses with wolves, but very little. Also, what may be equally important, is that very little interaction with cougars has been seen. That may be due to the cougars noted elusive nature. Chin adds, "Yeah…wolves will steal cougar kills and I think the cougar territories do shift. I think if you want to speak in terms of generalities, (Yellowstone) wolves don't affect (Yellowstone) cougars."
One of the favorite animals of Yellowstone visitors is the moose. There is something about the animal, no matter how mangy they may appear, that has led to the creation of "Bullwinkle" and caused countless tourists to chase them down in the park's marshlands for a quick portrait session. While wolves have been known to take down a moose, they pose an increased challenge compared to their standard prey of elk. Chin explains the wolf diet in more detail, "As I was saying, they are selective hunters. There are all these other species they could be going for…but they tend to key in on elk. So, going after a moose is unusual in that respect. (However), if there's something struggling, then they wouldn't pass up the chance if they were hungry."
The danger for an attacking wolf can come in trying to bring down a moose. This past April, the alpha female from the Soda Butte pack was apparently killed by a moose. "Because there was nobody there at the time, we couldn't say what happened (for sure)," Chin states. "It just looked like, from what Doug (Smith) said from the plane…it looked like she was killed by a moose…"
At this early stage, the significant impact felt, due to the wolves' presence, would have to be by elk and coyote. Since 86% of the wolves' diet consists of elk, it is easy for one to see how things are changing for the great herds of the park. One of the questions still out there is how has the behavior of elk changed, or how will it change? "Will they shift their feeding grounds? Will they shift their calving grounds? Will they shift migration routes? Will they live linger? You know, things like that," Chin asks theoretically. "I don't know if anyone can say for sure on any one of those things yet. It's been five years since the wolves have been reintroduced and that seems like a long time to us, but I think in (terms of) populations this large, it's going to be hard to say that elk are benefiting or not (from having the wolves around)."
If the vast majority of a wolf's diet consists of elk, how could the existence of wolf packs in an elk herd's territory possibly be a benefit? "One of the hopes with reintroducing the wolves (was) that they would help bring a healthier elk population; partly because (wolves) are very selective in what they hunt," Chin noted. "What we've found…is it's usually a calf. If it's not a calf, it's usually a cow. If it's an adult female, it's almost always very old, the (elk) teeth are very worn…. (that means) they are probably about nine or ten years old." Herein lies the benefit to the elk population. Smith noted that 25% of the Yellowstone elk herd is past its prime and above nine years of age. This is not the indicator of a vivacious and healthy elk herd. Especially since the average elk cow does not produce calves past the age of nine or ten. "…It's just about when they are starting to hit the end of when they might be able to replace themselves in the population," Chin continued. "They're eating food, they're drinking water…that normally would be given to a younger animal that would be replacing itself: bearing calves next spring. So, by the wolves taking those individuals out, it actually helps the (elk) population be more vigorous."
More directly addressing the question of elk behavior, any visitor can immediately notice differences in elk throughout the park. For example, in the Mammoth area, elk are seen throughout the year feeding in grass yards adjacent to shops, trails, and administration buildings. They have grown accustomed to safety there and have nothing to fear. At any given point, someone could be within twenty meters of an elk and it will not immediately run off. However, if a visitor should come within 1,000 meters of an elk herd in the Lamar Valley, the herd will quickly move to a more comfortable distance for itself. The Lamar Valley has been the Druid Peak pack's territory for the last four years.
"I think that's going to be looked at now; we have graduate students working on this project…viewing elk, looking at (their) habitat selection," Chin said. "Do the elk spend more time in the valley bottoms because they feel more secure? Maybe. That's something that's been said. Are they in aspen groves as opposed to on the grass? How do they spend their days? Those are some of the (questions and) arguments; that they've changed their behavior….that the wolves, because they are now in the Paradise Valley (north of Gardiner, MT), can change the behaviors of the resident (elk) herds. They're in the meadows, they're hidden in the trees, they're more secretive. The other argument (that this illustrates) is that now they're returning to what's considered a natural behavior."
Doug Smith points out that the condition of the northern Yellowstone elk herd has not been in the greatest shape, probably due to the lack of the top carnivore in the ecosystem. In analyzing all of the data that comes with reintroducing a keystone species to the Yellowstone ecosystem after a sixty-year plus absence, the elk-wolf relations issues appear to be the most pressing. "You know, we're addressing the big issue, wolf-elk, because 90% of what wolves eat are elk and elk happen to be the golden animal of the West. I mean, for example this last fall, the (hunting) outfitters were saying, 'there are no elk left'," Smith begins. "When we did the survey (this past winter), 14,538 (elk counted), which is basically stable. You know, we did the survey in 1994, before the wolves were released, it was 16,500." It should be noted that these figures are not corrected for siteability. "That's a minimum count," Smith continues. "That means the actual count is probably way over 15,000. That's a stable elk herd." However, when analyzing the effect the wolves have had on the Yellowstone's elk herd, much more about the ecosystem and what it is capable of supporting needs to be understood first. "In 1968, they estimated 3,000 to 5,000 elk…in that same herd," Smith points out. "The early nineties, we were at 19,000." Putting these numbers in perspective is important. The population figures only matter in relation to the area's carrying capacity. "Now keep in mind, carrying capacity is not a fixed level," Smith explains. "Carrying capacity goes" up and down "from year to year. If you have a mild winter, your carrying capacity is higher, because there's more food available for the ungulates. The northern Yellowstone elk, and Jackson (National Elk Refuge) elk herds, are at carrying capacity. I mean, I would say (that) if you talk to land managers that manage the northern Yellowstone elk herd and the ones that manage the Jackson Hole elk herd, they're going to tell you 'we are above carrying capacity'. In fact, Wyoming has herd objectives, Montana does not. What's over objective mean? That means that you're pounding the hell out of the habitat. How that manifests itself in the northern Yellowstone elk herd is low, pregnancy rates and poor calf condition in late winter."
At press time, John Mack who speaks for Yellowstone on elk issues, was unavailable for comment regarding the carrying capacity issues of the northern herd.
As far as the Jackson herd is concerned, carrying capacity does not appear to be as critical, according to an official at the National Elk Refuge. Jim Griffin, an educated biologist and Assistant Manager of the refuge, points out that the herd has consistently been in great shape. Technically, the figure always used for carrying capacity has been 7,500, but the herd is almost always given supplemental feed, thus Griffin stated the figure is not as crucial. This past winter, 7,610 elk were on or around, the refuge with 8,451 counted the prior year. Additionally, only eleven elk were killed by wolves this year compared with sixty the previous year. Griffin did also mention that no real study on the carrying capacity of the refuge, open since 1912, has been done to date. However, a graduate student recently completed a study of his own that concluded the carrying capacity should be reset to 6,000.
Smith further points out the problems of a herd that is above carrying capacity. "Last winter (1998-1999) was an average winter. It wasn't a hard winter, it was an average (winter)…in every single elk calf, Susan (Chin) ran the numbers, in March that got killed by wolves, had fat depleted marrow. An average winter and they were in awful shape. In an average winter, most of them should be in good condition." As time has moved forward, the health of the herd does not appear to be getting any better. "Secondarily," Smith continues, "this was a mild winter, this not even average. We caught forty-five elk in March. We had this fancy ultrasound and came in and looked at the fat content of the elk. In a mild winter, you would think that all the elk would be in excellent condition. They were not. Some elk are in excellent condition, some elk's condition sucked! In a mild winter, they all should have been in great shape."
In Alaska, wolves hunt caribou, a cousin of the elk. Wolves have never been reintroduced to an ecosystem in Alaska, because they were never eliminated. The ecosystem has been left relatively intact. Smith pointed out that the undisturbed predator-prey relationship of wolves to caribou has resulted in a sound balance of both species. Alaska's caribou, that roam wolf territories, have been noted for their excellent condition, year in and year out.
While some impact to the coyotes certainly was expected, even Smith is surprised at the consequences rippling through the coyote population. "The effect on coyotes was more dramatic than anyone thought (it would be). No one thought it would kick in so quickly…," Smith stated. "I mean, core (coyote) use areas in wolf pack territories have declined 90%. They've declined 50% over their range of overlap with wolves and about, when you get out of wolf pack territories, 10-20%." Other dynamics within the coyote's societal infrastructure are also changing. "I have also been told by the Yellowstone Ecosystems Study staff that the (coyote) territories are not as stable as they were before the wolves were reintroduced," Chin adds "The alphas (male and female) also are changing much more frequently. In general, it seems to be a tougher life for them."
It's also worth mentioning that life in Yellowstone for the wolves is not a picnic. There are struggles and difficulties for the transplanted canines from Canada. Many people believe that nothing can, or ever does, kill a wolf. Unfortunately for some wolves, that has been proven untrue. Wolves kill other wolves over pack territorial disputes and social order issues within a pack, to name just two reasons.
Also, last year was the worst survival rate for pups since 1995: 59%. In previous years, pups survived to their first year 75 to 90% of the time. While Smith pointed out that it is difficult to confirm, the ParvoVirus, in the coyote population for years, may be the culprit. Wolves also have to avoid cars driving through the park; the most recent wolf killed by a vehicle occurred the week of May 22.
Lastly, like any other wild animal, staying alive takes much effort and strength; only the strongest survive. "Wolf densities throughout the GYE aren't that high. Some would argue they don't need to be high and they may be right," Smith says. "In mountainous environments, the ungulates distribute themselves widely in the summer and they constrict themselves in the winter to about 10% of their summer range. So, where are all the wolves, the ungulates, and the people going to be…six, seven months of the year? In the valleys. You still only have two packs around Jackson. You'll probably get more eventually. You only got one pack east of the park. You're probably going to get more, I mean, this year, in fact, you'll get more. You know, if you get off the northern range of Yellowstone, you (only) have three packs in the interior of Yellowstone. You've got the Nez Perce pack; the Crystal pack, which is in decline; and the Soda Butte pack in the Thorofare area, which is in decline. They're in decline because of problems finding year-round food in ungulates. Those places in the wintertime are deserts for ungulates and the ungulates mostly migrate out. Yet those wolves are eeking out an existence living on what ungulates are left and buffalo. They're learning to kill buffalo now."
In the park, there are all these species that are affected by reintroducing the keystone animal into their world. So much has been mentioned here about specific animals that park visitors, area residents, and even hunters have come to expect as permanent fixtures on the landscape. As Smith indicated, some are concerned there will not be enough elk for hunting. Some park visitors even ask if the wolves will kill all the other species off. Maybe more important than the wolves' effect on individual species, is their impact to the GYE as a whole.
Restoring ecosystems takes on additional meaning when considering that restoring eliminated or reduced carnivores is part of that equation. History shows that "human beings killed carnivores without question," Smith reminds us. "Carnivores and humans don't coexist very well. Now there has been a worldwide resurgence in a discipline called 'conservation biology'. A lot of that focuses on animals that are having a hard time living with humans; carnivores are one and wolves are a subset of that one. The research has shown that when you restore carnivores, you get greater bio-diversity."
Bio-diversity is a sexy and frequently used term nowadays. Despite the term's possible overuse, it does mean that the Yellowstone ecosystem isn't going to be a place for just the deer, elk, antelope, and bison to play anymore. Restructuring an ecosystem and returning diversity includes revitalizing species and populations that most people forget about, along with the ones that they may not like or understand.
In "those ecosystems, that don't have a top carnivore, you've got a couple species that are very dominant because that top carnivore is gone," Smith explains. "Here in the Yellowstone ecosystem, it's been elk and coyotes. Yellowstone Park has the densest coyote population in North America and this (elk) herd, and the Jackson elk herd, are the two single largest elk herds in the world. So, you've got an ecosystem that's strong on coyotes and strong on elk. You bring in wolves, and wolves kill both those animals."
As studies have proven, when one link in the food chain is removed, things are thrown out of balance and other links may overpopulate or decrease dramatically. Even plant species can suffer the effects of the loss of a seemingly irrelevant animal. "We're not saying elk aren't going to decline, but what happens when elk (and coyotes) decline (is) you're going to get more of other kinds of species that are rare: lynx, wolverine, fisher, martin, red fox, those species that aren't around very much now," Smith reassures. "A lot of things like riparian areas aren't doing very well right now because of heavy browsing pressure due to elk. What does that affect? That affects riparian species - birds. What are the most productive habitats in the western mountain landscapes? Aspen stands, and that reflects on your greatest bird diversity. You're probably going to get different kinds of vegetative structure. You may end up getting more moose because of the competition between elk and moose and wolves don't focus on moose like they do elk."
Since the impact to the coyote population has been so dramatic, the rippling effect to the ecosystem is also quite noteworthy. "Red foxes have been suppressed by coyotes. Unfortunately, "there isn't good data out there on red fox populations right now, but predictions are they are going to increase because you're cutting back on that coyote population," Smith states. "This is the densest coyote population in North America, what's that going to have on rodents", when that population declines? In turn, what will the increased rodents do to things like predatory birds? Will we get an increase in those types of birds? All of that hooks in to having wolves back in the ecosystem." Where does that leave us? What does all this information mean in the grand scheme of things for Yellowstone? Litigiously, with the recent court ruling, the wolves of Yellowstone are here to stay. Biologically, they have to fight for themselves, but all indications are that they will thrive in the park and provide many ecological benefits along the way. "So, I think in the end, these are still preliminary because really in the terms of ecosystem science (or) ecosystem research, five years is nothing," Smith closes. "I mean, geological time…five years is, you know, 'poof'. Literally, I think the time to have this interview again will be in twenty years. We're a quarter of the way through where we want to be. I think the ecosystem is more complete. I think it is definitely approaching self-management more than it was. I don't think it ever will, nor should it ever, approach self-management because people are part of the Yellowstone ecosystem. They always will be. I think they have a say in what happens."