Wolves effect their surroundings and bring life to the lands they inhabit. For sixty years elk browsed the meadows of the North Fork of the Flathead, in Montana. Their adversary, canis lupus, who had chased them through time, was gone, hunted to extinction in the West.
Then the wolf came home to it’s native habitat and dispersed the elk. This brought back the aspen and willow, young shoots no longer trampled under the complacent elk’s hooves. With the aspen came the songbirds and other wildlife.
Once more the circle was complete with the return of the great canine, the wolf.
They lead to more songbirds. Better trout habitat. More game birds. Less insects. Better soil. Fewer coyotes. Wilder elk. More aspen trees.
Wolves, in essence, are key to a healthy landscape.
So says biologist Christina Eisenberg in a fascinating Missoulian article on the effect of wolves — and their absence — on an ecosystem.
Eisenberg has been studying the top-to-bottom effect of wolves — called a “trophic cascade” — in Glacier National Park for years. She’s also been researching ecosystems near St. Mary’s, Montana, and in Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, Canada.
“Each study site is about the same size, and each has a similarly large elk population, native to an aspen-based winter range, and each has the same general density of cougars and bears.” The difference between the sites is the number of resident wolves: St. Mary’s has none, Waterton some, and Glacier many.
Her findings on the much heated debate over wolves and elk mirror what others have found: there are plenty of elk in the Northern Rockies, but the return of wolves has made the elk behave again like wild elk:
The North Fork, Eisenberg said, is “full of wolves,” and has been for 20 years now. It’s also full of elk – as many as 14 elk per square kilometer in this meadow, where the wolf den site is located. Elk scat litters the ground not 20 yards from the den.
Clearly, the wolves aren’t eating all the elk. But aside from the tracks and the scat and the bones and the antlers, there are no elk to be seen.
“They’ve totally changed their behavior,” Eisenberg said. “For 60 years we’ve become used to complacent elk. These elk aren’t complacent. They’re on high alert.”
From a browse standpoint, that means elk eat a bit and move on, eat a bit and move on, never standing in one place long enough to eat a tree down to its roots. And from a human standpoint, it means hunters see far fewer elk even as state wildlife officials insist Montana has more deer and elk than it’s had for years.
Hunters, of course, prefer elk that aren’t quite so wily, but trophic cascades work both ways in wildlife management. Remove the wolves, and elk are easier to find. But then coyote populations explode, eating their way through the local game-bird population. Enhance one hunting opportunity, and you affect another.
And from a bigger viewpoint than just elk, Eisenberg has found that wolves increase biodiversity and greatly benefit the overall health of the areas they inhabit:
Remove the wolves, she said, and you lose the birds.
Remove the wolves, she said, and the coyotes fill the niche. The coyotes eat the ground squirrels, and so the meadows don’t get “plowed,” and soil productivity declines.
Remove the wolves, she said, and the deer eat the river-bottom willows, and the bull trout lose both their shade and their food, as insects no longer fall from overhanging brush.
Remove the wolves, she said, “and everything changes.”
Why is this so noteworthy?
Because the places with greatest biodiversity are the places most resilient, most able to adapt to, say, changing climate.
And Eisenberg wisely thinks her — and others’ — findings should guide wolf management.
Wolf populations aren’t recovered with 12 breeding pairs, or 15, or 20, Eisenberg said. They’re recovered when there are enough wolves and other top-end predators to maximize biodiversity.
Her findings are important, and they’re timely, as wolves are being gunned down all over Idaho and Montana right now.
In her research and in this article, Eisenberg simply and unequivocally points out a critical fact that’s been lost in the recent debate over the wolf hunts:
Tracking science: Biologist’s findings show forest diversity, health influenced by wolves
Photo: First People
Photo: wolf wallpaper
Posted in: biodiversity, wolf recovery, gray wolf, Glacier National Park
Tags: wolf recovery, gray wolf, biodiversity