Yellowstone wolves: What happened when they came back, and what could happen here
By Maria Felice Cunningham
Our Valley of the Moon carries the ancestral wolf howls of Jack London’s spirit across our rugged mountains and vineyards. As the Harvest Moon approaches on Sept. 24, I cannot help but wonder if wolves might find their way to our sleepy village. If this brings chills to your heart – rest assured. Your initial fear-based reaction is not shared by Yellowstone National Park visitors, or its ranger biologists, as wolf sightings have become one of the top reasons people go to Yellowstone.
So what would it mean to introduce another apex predator into our valley if they make it down from Northern California where they recently crossed the border? How would it impact our safety and ecosystem? A good indication is how it has impacted Yellowstone since the reintroduction of wolves in 1995.
Once found from the Arctic Circle to Mexico City, wolves had a hundred-year history of being poisoned and killed for their skins. Eventually this mass slaughter worked and the last wolf was killed in Yellowstone Park in 1926. Unintended consequences followed, but it took decades to understand the “why.”
Yellowstone’s ecosystem spun into decline. Without wolves, populations of ungulates such as moose, deer, elk and bighorn sheep exploded. The plan in place at the time, that encouraged unruly culling of herds by government officials, caused starvation, disease and dead carcasses in full view of campers. Like dominos, an ecological mess of tumbling natural systems contributed to a cascade of unintended destruction to important rivers, trees, plants, and animals.
It took 30 years of fighting ranchers and big business hunting until finally the park was allowed to reintroduce wolves. Almost immediately, at least in nature’s time, the park regenerated for the better. When the wolves finally reentered the gates of Yellowstone, there was only one beaver colony left in the park. The elk had grown so numerous and ravenous that they had consumed most of the young willows, aspens and cottonwoods that held the banks of the rivers in place. With a new predator to keep their numbers under control, the elk began to lightly graze the banks and move on to other feeding grounds.
The beavers breathed a sigh of relief and went to work. Their dams are designed to clean water recharge in seasonal runoffs and provide cold, fresh water and shelter for waning fish populations. Their architecturally strong homes also hold up the once sagging riverbanks that contribute to regenerating willow. Songbirds flock to the willow stands while flowers bloom throughout the park with species once thought to be extinct. The rivers are magically coming to life and can change course at will to provide new life to bear, beaver, elk, sheep, goat, insect and bird populations.
A chorus of beavers thwacking their tails reverberates like an aquatic rap song, heralding the return to their homes and a new lease on ecological soundness. All because the wolves were brought back and nature once again has her chess pieces lined up to keep natural systems functioning as they are designed.
Wolves keep other apex predator populations in check while also, through their kills, providing food for ravens, vultures, coyotes, bobcats, hawks, and lions. In our valley, the mountain lions do the same. Amazingly, apex predators self-regulate their populations, and make prey animals stronger by culling the sick and weak. Killing mountain lions to protect livestock has been proven by top researchers to only increase further predation, with the introduction of new lions, usually more of them, to take their place.
Wolves may never make it down this far, but the lesson from Yellowstone is that we don’t know what damage we do, or have done, by removing an apex predator. Sonoma Creek once displayed an abundance of beavers, otters, bald eagles and steelhead. It was our encroachment that changed this landscape, and we continue to do so without thinking. Who knows what we could bring back from extinction in this area if we don’t sanitize mountain lion killings as “necessary.”
This September, take some time for reflection as you watch the velvet orange harvest moon rise grandly up over our landscape. Imagine that you could hear the soulful moan of a wolf looking for its mate. We live in a valley alive with stories of wildness. How lucky we are to be here at this time in history to make a difference for those that come after us. And a special thanks to Jack London, too, whose spirit is still mighty strong in this valley for his love of the wild and the unpredictable.
Maria Felice Cunningham lives in Glen Ellen and has a Masters in Ecopsychology.