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Wolves May Not Be Saving Yellowstone's Ecosystem, Biologist Says

ICTMN Staff
3/21/14

The famous and oft-invoked story of the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park after nearly a century of absence may have some gaps, according to one biologist.

Could the role of wolves in transforming the ecosystem in the iconic park by eating elk, thus allowing for the regeneration of trees and from that, other wildlife, be overblown? Recently a video about how wolves transformed not only the flora and fauna but also the very geography of the rivers went viral, and Indian Country Today Media Network showcased it as well.

RELATED: Video: Wolves Transform the Rivers in Yellowstone National Park

But giving wolves credit for what is known as a “trophic cascade” may obscure other aspects of what is going on in the park and the ecology as a whole, wrote Yale postdoctoral fellow Arthur Middleton in a March 9 opinion piece for The New York Times. While the notion appeared “to make good sense” at the outset, he said, deeper study revealed that the wolves had not influenced events to the degree that was at first inferred.

“By insisting that wolves fixed a broken Yellowstone, we distract attention from the area’s many other important conservation challenges,” he wrote. “When we tell the wolf story, we get the Yellowstone story wrong.”

For one thing, elk are tougher and Yellowstone a more complex ecosystem than originally thought, he noted. In addition, to focus solely on wolves as agents of change can obscure the fact that temperatures are at their highest in 6,000 years; infestations of fungus and beetles are eating away at whitebark pine; and migratory wildlife is being affected by drilling for natural gas, Middleton wrote. In other words, there are many more environmental problems afoot, many more than the wolves could influence, he said.

Though turning wolves into the bogeyman is not the answer, neither is “reciprocal myth making,” Middleton wrote.

Read Is the Wolf a Real American Hero? in The New York Times for an alternate perspective on the wolf issue. 

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marklaroux's picture
marklaroux
Submitted by marklaroux on
Could it be that Middleton began his study several years AFTER wolves had been reintroduced to Yellowstone, and the effects were already in action? He would then only see reverberations of the original impact, and may not see them as significant. He was late to the party.

I'm Not Here's picture
I'm Not Here
Submitted by I'm Not Here on
Once upon a time, buffalo roamed the US in vast numbers until the government paid sharpshooters to eradicate the herds to end the food and useful materials derived from buffalo so the Indians had to way to self-survive and sustain their traditional ways of life. This forced and made it more convenient for the US government to shuffle Native Indians onto predetermined reservations. Point being, at one time wolves had a unlimited amount of a food source in buffalo. Now with the reintroduction of wolves, a limited food source will occur has wolf packs grow and hunting territory will spill over unto cattle ranges and even neighborhoods. Not a well thought out plan to reintroduce wolf packs after, like the buffalo, the government went through all the trouble to poison and eradicate wolfs in the first place. The wolves were happy in Canada, should have left them there.

marklaroux's picture
marklaroux
Submitted by marklaroux on
The government has gone through 'all that trouble' to eradicate another certain group, besides wolves (and buffalo)... Should that group 'just be happy' on reservations or risk their unhappiness and strive to survive like their ancestors where they feel the need to go? Isn't that the larger picture of an ecological niche (Middleton's question also)? As above, so below...some human's stories aren't so different from the wolf and the buffalo after all. We still watch and learn from nature, even if our hands get dirty while doing it.

marklaroux's picture
marklaroux
Submitted by marklaroux on
The government has gone through 'all that trouble' to eradicate another certain group, besides wolves (and buffalo)... Should that group 'just be happy' on reservations or risk their unhappiness and strive to survive like their ancestors where they feel the need to go? Isn't that the larger picture of an ecological niche (Middleton's question also)? As above, so below...some human's stories aren't so different from the wolf and the buffalo after all. We still watch and learn from nature, even if our hands get dirty while doing it.
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