Wolves as ecosystem engineers

gray wolf
Gray (Timber) Wolf, held in pen before being introduced to Yellowstone Park in 1995. Photo Barry O’Neill, United States National Park Service


Published February 17, 2014

Red Riding Hood and the Three Little Pigs have a lot to answer for: thanks partly to fairy tales, wolves have a ghastly and global reputation as big and bad, terrorists of young girls and small pigs, good for nothing but their pelts.

But science offers redemption — and one fair wolf tale can be found in Yellowstone National Park in the western United States. Alas, it’s a tale without an end.

The story of America’s wolves (and most wolves worldwide) is a long and grisly saga, aptly summarized in this science paper on red wolves (pdf):

“WOLFERS” IN NORTHEASTERN North Carolina were busy on February 5, 1768. Records from the Tyrrell County courthouse read: “Giles Long and Thomas Wllkinson awarded one pound for a certified wolf scalp; Jeremiah Norman awarded two pounds for certified wolf and wild-cat scalps; Davenport Smithwick awarded one pound for a certified wolf-scalp. Such was the nature of the war on the wolf: people killed them for money. The belief of the time held that the war was necessary because it was humankind’s manifest destiny to tame the wilderness. And for the wilderness to be tame, the wolf had to be exterminated. The wolf was resourceful and hardy, but the wolfers persisted with increasingly sophisticated methods of killing. The war lasted 200 years, and the wolf lost.”

Yellowstone’s wolves were likewise slaughtered, Wild West style, until 1926, when the last pack was killed.

But when ecology began to edge out Manifest Destiny environmentalism spread — and 40 years ago this year the United States introduced its famous Endangered Species Act. Soon after that, America’s gray wolves were declared endangered, in recognition of their need for protection. It took another 20 years for wolves to return to Yellowstone, but in the mid-1990s the first of eventual dozens of animals arrived, shipped in from Western Canada and Montana.

The reintroduction was, and remains, controversial. Ranchers outside the park protested vehemently. The wolves loomed large in local court cases, political forums and regulatory decisions. The ethics of relocating the animals were hotly debated: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) cites Yellowstone wolves in their argument against predator reintroduction.

Gray Wolf. Photo by Gary Kramer, United States Fish and Wildlife Service

And the wolves themselves haven’t had it easy: mange, lack of food and distemper took their toll inside the park, and when they roamed outside its boundaries they found themselves in the scopes of hunting rifles, often killed.

But what happened inside Yellowstone park after Gray (also called timber) Wolves were reintroduced was a transformation of epic proportions.

New research shows that the wolves were the catalyst for ecological change, manifest in the behaviour of deer, different types of plants that thrived, the successes of beaver, and even the nature of park waterways.

The complexity of the wolves’ role is striking. It turns out – seen with the clarity of hindsight — that their disappearance from the park had a domino effect; biologists call it a trophic cascade. And, as the research shows, their re-introduction gradually and indirectly reversed the process,  helped replace the dominoes, helped other species thrive.

The success of the 20-year-old experiment of putting wolves back in Yellowstone Park suggests that it’s possible, at least in some cases, to reverse the damage of removing what biologists call a “keystone species,” a species so crucial to the health of an ecosystem that when it vanishes the damage is so profound  biologist E.O. Wilson compares it to “a drill accidentally striking a power line. It causes lights to go out all over.”

The story of the Yellowstone wolves is a tragedy, of both their slaughter and the astonishing hubris that an ecosystem developed over millennia would yield suddenly to human “management.”

But even as science has proved the ecological importance of wolves, the controversies continue, and their villainous fairy tale role remains intact.

As wolves slowly crept back into the wild places of America’s west, hunters followed. With robust gray wolf populations found in scattered pockets, it was suggested gray wolves be taken off from the Endangered Species list. An independent, peer-reviewed panel last month strongly recommended against that removal, but a decision continues to elude the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, which has repeatedly extended the period allowed for people on both sides to comment.

America is not alone in fearing wolves and celebrating their killing. Europe, after effectively wiping them out from most of the continent, is also trying to restore wolf packs. In December, the European Union’s “Project of the Month was “WOLF.” Its web page says WOLF “aims to overturn a centuries-old hostile relationship between wolves and farmers by bringing together farmers, hunters and conservationists … The project has helped to challenge the negative preconceptions; wolves are now increasingly recognised as an indicator of environmental health and a balanced ecosystem.”

But WOLF, like wolf reintroduction in the United States, has its work cut out for it. WOLF’s acknowledgement of “long-held fears  … which date all the way back to when mankind first began to domesticate and farm livestock” foreshadowed the problems Italian biologists have convincing local sheep farmers, who have a sense of story and a grisly flare for drama.

“Little Red Riding Hood Beheads Wolves in ‘Mafia Warning’ to Animal Rights Groups” screamed a headline last week in the International Business Times UK. It featured a photo of a severed wolf head hung in the Italian village of Scansano, with a sign calling for wolves to be killed. It was signed, “Little Red Riding Hood.”

Little Red Riding Hood, apparently, has no faith in the science of “environmental health and a balanced ecosystem.”

Copyright © Deborah Jones 2014

Contact: djones@factsandopinions.com

Reference, video, and further reading:
World Wildlife Federation page on Gray Wolves: http://wwf.panda.org/about_our_earth/species/profiles/mammals/wolf_timber_intro/
Restoration of the Red Wolf, Michael K. Phillips, V. Gary Henry, and Brian T. Kelly, University of Chicago Press, 2003
European Union WOLF project: http://enrd.ec.europa.eu/publications-and-media/enrd-main-stories-archive/en/the-wolf-and-the-farmer-working-together_en.cfm
Michael K. Phillips, Douglas W. Smith, Barry O’Neill, and Teri O’Neill. The Wolves of Yellowstone. Voyageur Press (1998). A book by the architects of Yellowstone’s wolf re-introduction — available second hand.
PBS Nature episode In the Valley of the Wolves: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/episodes/in-the-valley-of-the-wolves/additional-web-and-print-resources/214/
New York Times: Famous Wolf is Killed Outside Yellowstone http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/09/science/earth/famous-wolf-is-killed-outside-yellowstone.html

This video, narrated by British journalist George Monbiot, summarizes the impact of the gray wolves on Yellowstone.