After a few weeks of preparation, it was finally time to support my first field seminar, Intro to Wolf Management and Ecology. Since the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone in 1995, debates relative to this alluring creature have been tireless and complex. Wolf watchers in the park are enamored by them, ranchers and hunters not so much.
I had heard several park employee discussions on the topic of reintroduction of the wolf, namely Doug Smith, project leader for the Wolf Restoration Project, since our arrival to the park. He has studied wolves for the past 20+ years and still brings the same passion to the topic as he did as a Yellowstone freshman. I was anxious to hear some fresh views on this subject from our class instructor, Jon Trapp. Beyond embracing many of the views presented by Doug, Jon also spoke on the topic of wolf denning, subject of his master’s thesis.
Our classroom time took us through the past couple of decades since reintroduction, how many of the wolves have been collared and tracked, the family dynamics of how they hunt together, and what happens when an alpha member of the pack is killed. It was most informative and supporting this field seminar added another dimension to my time at the Buffalo Ranch.
Wolves get a bad rap, some of it deserved, as they do kill some livestock. No rancher wants to work hard to grow their herd, only to have a predator take from him. The good news is that when this happens, the rancher is compensated for his loss.
Hunters who share the sentiment that the only good wolf is a dead wolf feel that the elk population has been jeopardized by the reintroduction of the wolf. It is true that the mainstay of the Yellowstone wolf’s diet is elk; however, statistics have shown that many more elk are taken down by cougars than wolves. I learned that 85-95% of the time when hunting an elk, the wolf is not successful, and their elk hunting is compensatory, killing weaker elk who were most likely going to die anyway.
Our field studies were the most exciting, taking us to an area of the park where we could view an active wolf den using spotting scopes. Watching the pups emerge from the den, tumbling over one another, frolicking in the sunlight, delighted us all. Jon also took us to one of the first acclimation pens, Rose Creek, where we read the story of the first alpha female to the reintroduced to the park. On another outing we inspected an abandoned wolf den.
With the wolf’s return to the world’s first national park, Yellowstone has regained its balance of historic mammals and is now described as the largest intact ecosystem in the temperate world. We now see this region as it was before the Europeans arrived.
Biologists and scientists spend significant time in the field tracking the wolves of Yellowstone, but in the end what matters most is that we carved out another little piece of wildness with their reintroduction. We need these wild spaces, their coarseness, erratic ebbs and flows, the magic and mystery.
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of Yellowstone Forever.