Amazing World

The Wolves of Yellowstone

Nature operates on a delicate balance; when it goes wrong, it goes really wrong. Ecosystems and food chains are one of our planet’s many such balancing acts – however, much like the Force in George Lucas’ universe, breathtaking results are possible if the balance can be restored.

Yellowstone National Park, USA, is a microcosmic demonstration of this. Through adding an element that seems destructive, the park has been able to flourish. Not only has the park’s food-chain benefitted at every level, but even the land’s geography has improved thanks to these helpful, once endangered predators.

In 1926, the last wolves of Yellowstone were killed, and in 1995, 14 grey wolves were finally re-introduced in the National Park. Between 1995-96, this number rose to 31, the wolves transported to the North American park from Canada. It was a move that had controversial feedback, especially from local farmers who were concerned about the impact on their livestock. However, the impact on the park itself has been celebrated by zoologists and the public alike.

After the wolves were introduced, deer began to avoid certain areas of the park, knowing that these areas were no longer safe from the new predators. In the short term, a new threat to the deer sounds like a negative – however, areas that the deer began avoiding were suddenly protected from their grazing and the trampling of their hooves, meaning more plants were able to grow. This boom of vegetation, in turn, resulted in more berries and insects becoming available, and these resulted in a rising bird population. The 3,500-sq. mile park now not only boasts healthier bird numbers, but has gained several species that previously weren’t protected by it – and the change didn’t stop there.

A particularly surprising development from the introduction of wolves is the protection of the park’s riverbanks. Increased plant-life has resulted in soil that is better equipped to withstand erosion, which is keeping the park’s rivers on course. All of this, in turn, benefits the wildlife and plant life further.

The park’s water systems have also been protected in another way. Beavers had been extinct in the park region, which covers land in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, for many years. The rise in plant-life has finally brought beavers back to Yellowstone, and with them, their dams. Beaver dams raise the water table, making a better environment for many plants, birds and amphibians, but the lack of trees from too many deer and elk had put too much pressure of these essential and industrious little creatures. The beaver population is still recovering, but their return signals a sigh of relief for the park’s biodiversity.

The rising wolf population wasn’t violence-free, of course. Unfortunately, that’s how food chains work: as well as hunting the deer and elk, the wolves fought with their competitors, the coyote. However, this enabled a rise in the coyote’s usual prey and smaller rivals: red foxes, weasels, badgers, hawks, and even America’s great bald eagles.

The park now supports ten packs of wolves (with roughly ten wolves to a pack), which experts say represent the 2.2 million-acre park’s full wolf capacity. The creatures have flourished in the protected environment, showing no fear of humans and often viewed by eager tourists. They are also observed by zoologists, who are able to use this rare sample to study the wolves’ behaviour when not affected by captivity or human interference.

However, whilst the parkland itself is protected, the states around it are allowing more hunting in response to wolves who venture beyond Yellowstone to attack nearby livestock. Hopefully, this pattern will teach wolves not to venture beyond park lines and the remaining hassle-free packs will continue to thrive. However, on top of the losses of wolf life, the hunting threatens to impact on their behaviour and therefore disrupt the research being conducted. Needless to say, there are tensions between the scientists of Yellowstone and local farm owners. Thankfully, though, even with this threat, experts are no longer worried about the grey wolves becoming extinct.

In the movie Amadeus (Forman, 1984), Mozart responds to the critique that his music has “too many notes” with the retort that every note is precisely where it needs to be. Whether this exchange is fact or fiction, the same words could be said about nature; whilst adaption is the key to survival, each aspect of an eco-system relies on every other, and Yellowstone is a clear demonstration that adding – or taking away – an element can have a monumental domino effect (or butterfly effect, in fact.) It is a lesson worth bearing in mind as we try to navigate the protection of our planet, but it is positive encouragement, perhaps, to see that as soon as it regains what it needs, nature is quick to restore itself to the way it is intended to be.