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The Wolves of Yellowstone
Alex Steffen, 3 Aug 05

We're big fans of restoration and ecosystem science here, but rarely do we hear as lyrical an explanation of the possibilities as this. Ally Rick Bass writes of the unexpected benefits of reintroducing wolves to Yellowstone:

"By pruning the wildly excessive elk numbers, and by forcing the elk to be elk again, the Yellowstone wolves kept the elk herds on the move, allowing overgrazed riparian areas to recover. The elk were no longer encamping in any one spot like feedlot animals, and the restored riverbanks served as nesting and feeding habitat for songbirds of different hues. Blink, and a howl equals the color yellow.

"Where previously the overcrowded and static elk and deer herds conspired to keep stands of aspen from regenerating, browsing with sharp teeth any and all young aspen suckers as soon as they emerged, the beautiful groves of aspen, snow-white bark and quivering gold leaves in the fall, are now prospering, flaring back up on the landscape like so many tens of thousands of autumn-lit candles. Entire mountain ranges are ultimately being painted anew—more color, more vitality, more light—by the arrival of, initially, a mated pair of wolves, an alpha male and female, followed by the next wave of other wolves, new wolves. ... Cerulean, sapphire, bordeaux, jade—the return of deciduous saplings to the hoof-cut, denuded riverbanks once abused by too many elk has been good for more than songbirds and artists. Beavers, too, have prospered, able now to access their requisite building and feeding materials without needing to venture so far into dangerous territory. This has resulted in the return of more backwater ponds and pools and eddies, the filtering and life-support systems for so much other river life, and provided a greater distribution of nutrients in the shallow sloughs that back up and create gentle floods behind the beaver dams. In these shallow areas of submersion young cottonwoods prosper—more flame color, and more beaver habitat."

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Yes, there are many hopeful facets to this story. Check out Elvis, Wolves, and the Death of Environmentalism by ecologist Gary Wockner, on Tidepool.

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 3 Aug 05

from what i understand the wolf-restored riparian habitat (new cottonwood/willow growth on stream banks) is also resulting in cooler, more oxygen-rich water from the increased shading. This in turn is helping trout populations to grow.

pretty amazing to observe how rapid and how unpredictably beautiful system restoration can be when the crucial components are reinsterted. The ecological impact of wolves in Yellowstone is really a touchstone of hope for restoration in general (like fisheries restoration after old dams come down).

Posted by: sp0078 on 3 Aug 05

From the I'm Going To Hell for Saying This department:

Sometimes I think we need a genetically engineered wolf that is smart and tough enough to take out the occasional rancher.

Sorry. Just joking. Really. Just kiddin' ya. Hah-hah!

Posted by: Stefan Jones on 3 Aug 05

My favorite Farside cartoon ever was captioned:

"I know you liked the Wainwrights, Billy, but they were weak and stupid people. That's why we have wolves and other large predators."

In addition to being funny, it's a wonderful meditation on what the absence of human predation means, both good and bad.

Posted by: hack on 3 Aug 05

Imagine if we herded our cattle like this, being predators, remembering our instincts. Using this we can keep deserts at bay, keeping the land alive and moving the microbs around so not to compact and stagnate. Whoopee. Bringing the metabolism of the World back circulating with herds.

Posted by: Kim McDodge on 4 Aug 05



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