NatGeo’s Wolf Wars (March 2010 Special Feature)
by Douglas Chadwick and Jeff Vanuga
The gray wolf and its subspecies – one of North America’s apex predators – coexisted with man for thousands of years until it met its match with the arrival of European-style agriculture and development. From the 1800s they were actively hunted as a menace and their numbers steadily dropped until the 1970s, when they were declared endangered, with only a handful existing in the wild in more isolated regions of the Great Lakes.
Starting in 1995, Fish & Wildlife biologists captured a few descendants of this single thriving pack and successfully released them into Yellowstone, where their population quickly exploded. Today the wolf packs of Yellowstone are a beloved national icon and a major tourist attraction worth millions. But of course not everyone was so enthusiastic. At the front line of opponents is the cattle ranching industry, who stood to lose the most from the reintroduction of a potential threatening predator.
In the past, the wolves’ largest food source was elk. The reintroduced species found an elk population that had skyrocketed in their absence, without natural predators keeping their numbers in check. In addition, the wolves found another ready food supply – free-range beef cattle. If a wolf pack kills an elk, it’s simply a dead elk and no one blinks twice – but if it kills a prize steer, or a pregnant heifer, that’s thousands of dollars to the rancher.
Of course, this is the reason the wolves were driven to near-extinction in the first place. But this time around, the cattle business takes up a lot more space in the West, making the herds easy pickings for the rapidly expanding clans. In response, Wyoming essentially declared open season on gray wolves in 2008, listing them as an invasive species and setting loose a horde of eager hunters.
Within the past couple of decades, wolf populations – and those of other animals directly linked to them in the food chain – have fluctuated wildly as nature’s checks and balances are disrupted by human intervention.
This diagram (click to enlarge) shows the comparison between the normal eco-system (with wolves) and the wolf-less habitat. I don’t think most people really appreciate how closely integrated all these natural systems are, from major apex mammals like the wolf and cougar, to smaller prey animals, down to the plant and microbial flora of a region. We can understand what happens for instance when you dam up a river, and change the entire eco-system downstream. But we can’t begin to appreciate how intricately the removal of one species – let alone our very presence – affects the whole biological makeup of a place.
The problem is that even if we leave the wolves alone, we’ve already created a chain-reaction in their habitat and with other species on down the line of the food chain. In other words the wolves have less space to hunt, and fewer prey animals. We’re like a stick in the proverbial gears of nature – our involvement means it can no longer achieve equilibrium.
The obvious solution seems to be taking the human variable out of the equation altogether and let nature take its own course (wishful thinking). But in the meantime, we hear of the recent aerial shooting of wolves in Alaska, and this from MSNBC giving a foretaste of what we’ll be hearing on the issue (no doubt this one will be getting some minor government officials major kickbacks from the ranching lobby).
So like typical modern humans we’ve created a problem bigger than we know how to fix, and it’s a lose-lose situation. The wolves themselves can always adapt – they’ve done so in the past – but apparently modern humans can’t. It’s going to take a lot to redeem ourselves from the omnivorous, parasitic species we’ve become. Whatever happens the wolves could easily get along fine without us. But given the huge impact that each link has on all the rest of the natural chain, can we really afford to do without the wolves – or any other species for that matter?