Return of the species



1. Wolves. Endangered?
2. Wolves on the rebound
3. History of extermination
4. Midwestern wolves

5. Causes of extinction
6. Trumpeter swan sings
Wisdom of reintroductions
8. Helping the plants
9. Moving the plants

10. Genetics movement
11.House flies!


Reversal of fortune: Winning wolves may lose precious protection

POSTED 14 JULY 2000 On July 11, federal regulators proposed a lower level of protection for the gray wolf in much of the country.

photo of wolf pup Courtesy Yellowstone National Park.

Eventually, the carnivore could lose all protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The change is the cost of success. By 1973, extermination campaigns had practically eliminated wolves from the lower 48 states. Today, wolves are back.

Roughly 3,500 members of Canis lupus now reside in the lower 48 states, primarily in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, with smaller numbers in the Southwest and Rocky Mountains.

The rebound reflects natural increase among Midwestern wolves, and the success of a controversial program that started reintroducing the gray wolf to the Rocky Mountains. The 31 gray wolves trapped in Canada and loosed in Yellowstone National Park in 1995 and 1996 have increased to about 120 adults today.

Breeding season
The wolf's comeback is good news to wolf lovers and anyone who favors returning endangered species to their home ranges. Ironically, wolves are doing so well that they could soon lose some or all protection of the Endangered Species Act, which helped ensure their survival.

The goal of the Rocky Mountain reintroduction is to have at least 30 breeding pairs survive for at least three years. Once 10 pairs each survive in each area: Yellowstone, Central Idaho, and Northwest Montana, the wolf will be removed from the endangered species list.

The thriving population of this awesome, doglike predator is enchanting Yellowstone's visitors. "It used to be that visitors would come and ask where to find grizzly bears," says Marsha Karle, head of the Park's public affairs office. "Now, it's really incredible the number of people asking to see wolves."

The opportunity often arises early or late in the day along roadsides, and the animals are especially easy to see in winter, when their coats contrast against the snow. Wolf-watching is bringing visitors to the Lamar Valley, in the northeast part of the park, and cash registers in Cook City have benefited from their reappearance, say Karle.

What's for dinner?
The reintroduction was not only supposed to benefit cash registers, tourists and the wolf itself, but also ecological relationships in Yellowstone. The wolf is a top carnivore in the area, and many ecologists think its long absence allowed a population explosion among wolf prey -- deer, moose, bison and particularly elk -- resulting in widespread damage to park vegetation. Ecology 101 tell us that the return of a keystone predator should echo through the ecosystem. Gray wolves are prospering. So we don't need to protect them. Right?Since wolves eat herbivores, more willow and aspen trees should survive, increasing the number of perching and feeding opportunities for birds and butterflies.

However, four years later, the impact on grazing animals has been less than expected, says Karle. "We're not seeing any changes in population sizes among ungulates [hoofed animals like deer and elk]... If lots of young are killed, ungulates have more young."

Still, the ungulate herds (if not individuals) stand to benefit since genes from weak, disease-prone animals are culled by wolves.

Wolves are having other effects. Each pack kills an elk -- usually a calf or an old female -- every one to five days, supplying a feast for scavenging animals. John Varley, the park's chief scientist, told The New York Times in 1997 that a horde of scavengers descends on an elk carcass after the engorged wolves depart. "You can see a grizzly bear, four or five ravens, coyotes, a fox, bald eagles and golden eagles on the carcass. All at once." The carcasses also feed such lowly scavengers as beetles, which in turn become MacGrub for magpies, bluebirds, warblers, nuthatches and Western tanagers.

Call of the coyote
So far, the main loser in the reintroduction has been the many coyotes around Yellowstone. Coyotes will fight wolves, but being outweighed by three to one, they generally lose. "It's displacing and killing coyotes, both adults and pups," says Karle. "It's been fairly high, more than we expected." But before you start feeling sorry for this relative of the wolf, remember that when one animal loses, another generally wins. Fewer coyotes should translate into more rodents and thus more prey for hawks and bald eagles.

Ironically, while ranchers don't like coyotes, they've been positively alarmed by the plan to reintroduce the animal that's eating those coyotes. To many ranchers, the idea of introducing a predator for sheep and cows is, well, stupid on its face. But Karle says ranchers have been mollified by reimbursements for dead livestock and by the prompt use of deadly force by Fish & Wildlife Service sharpshooters, who kill wolves that think a wilderness dining experience should include raw hamburger and uncooked mutton.

Legal aid
If the resurgence of the wolf is having ecological effects, it also has regulatory ones. As gray wolves rebound in the Rockies and Midwest, bureaucrats want to change the status of two subspecies, the eastern timber wolf and the northern rocky mountain wolf, from "endangered" to "threatened."

The change reflects success at Yellowstone, and the entrenched status of the Midwestern population. A leading wolf biologist, L. David Mech, of the U.S. Geological Survey, told the New York Times that the Minnesota population -- about 2,000, is safe. "I can't conceive of anything, excluding poisoning, that would endanger this population" (see "Rules Shielding the Gray..." in the bibliography).

A big yawn, with snow in background.
It's sleepy time up north. Or is it just the annual trip to the dentist?
Courtesy The Searching Wolf

The impending change would, if enacted, establish four regions for wolf management: the Rocky Mountains, the Midwest, and the Southwest, all of which have some wolves, and New England, where they've not been seen in a century.

The Mexican wolf, a rare subspecies struggling to survive in New Mexico, Arizona and Texas, would apparently retain full protection as an endangered species.

Curiously, Fish & Wildlife decided to stop protecting nonexistent wolves. In all or portions of 30 states ... "Gray wolves are not believed to be present ..., and their restoration in these areas is not necessary in order to achieve wolf recovery under the ESA [Endangered Species Act]. Therefore, the Service proposes to delist, or remove from ESA protection, any wolves that may occur there now or in the future. " In other words, the wolf resurgence may not extend beyond the four areas listed.

Shooting permitted
The main effect of reclassification would concern livestock depredation, says Adrian Wydevan, a wolf biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Today, under endangered status, federal agents relocate or shoot problem wolves. Under threatened status, that responsibility would shift to state managers. If the animals are removed from the Endangered Species Act, landowners could pull the trigger.

Without question, the reintroduction of the mysterious mammal reflects a change in public attitudes. Thanks in part to better education, wolves are now seen as an essential -- and beautiful -- component of a healthy ecosystem. "My feeling is that we have learned so much about how important each species is to the ecosystem," said Cheryl Matthews, in Yellowstone's public affairs office, told The Why Files in 1996. "In the 1920s and '30s, we shot these animals. It's an opportunity for us to right a wrong."

Bullets. Poison. Wolves. A lethal combo??

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