Call of the Wolf

Good morning, it’s Tuesday, May 14, 2019.

On this date in 1987, the National Park Service formally announced its support for an idea that had been quietly incubating in the park service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service bureaucracy for years — a plan to reintroduce wolves to Yellowstone National Park.

“Of all the species that were once here, it’s the only one still missing,” said John D. Varley, the park service’s chief of research at Yellowstone. In a rather a classic understatement, Varley added: “It’s tremendously controversial.”

It had a partisan tinge to it, too. Western Republicans in Congress heeded the desires of local ranchers and farmers bitterly opposed to the proposal. This made it a hard sell at the top levels of the Department of Interior under Ronald Reagan and his successor, George H.W. Bush. Presidential elections can have unexpected consequences, however, and after Bill Clinton was elected in 1992 — in a campaign in which wolf restoration went unmentioned as a domestic policy issue — he named former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt as the new interior secretary.

A lifelong conservationist, Babbitt knew about the wolf restoration efforts. He also knew that an environmental group, Defenders of Wildlife, had developed a creative strategy to raise private money to compensate ranchers for any loss of livestock taken by wolves.

So the plan was put into action. It’s been a success, too.

The northern gray wolf (canis lupus) once roamed this continent from the Arctic Circle to central Mexico. There is evidence that Native Americans respected these animals to the point of emulating wolves’ hunting techniques. European settlers brought with them to the New World a contrary mythology, however, one that not only saw wolves as a very real threat to human beings, especially children, but also a frightening, even evil, creature.

The most significant cultural trait difference, however, was that white settlers were not strictly a hunting and gathering people: From the beginning they were farmers who raised domesticated animals. The distinction between domesticated and wild prey was lost on wolves, which killed livestock as willingly as wildlife. In time, whites targeted wolves for extermination.

In the continental United States, some of the last refuges for the wolves were America’s great national parks. But they were not safe there, either: By the mid-1940s, National Park Service rangers completed the slaughter of this glorious animal.

Almost as soon as wolves had been wiped out, the NPS had misgivings about what it had done. Some of the guilt was over the sheer brutality of poisoning, shooting, and clubbing wolf pups to death. Part of it was a simple belief among some lovers of wildlife — including government employees — that humans simply didn’t have right to bring a storied species to the edge of extinction.

In 1986, a couple of wolves crossed the Canadian border into Montana and established a pack in Glacier National Park. These wolves were quietly cheered on by park rangers. But the argument that finally won the day, in the late 1980s and early1990s, was that the ecology of the national parks had been harmed by the absence of wolves. The absence of predators had upended the balance of nature.

In Yellowstone, for example, with a dearth of natural predators — I’m referring to human hunters and wolves — to stem their growth, elk herds became too large. Elk overgrazed Yellowstone’s valleys, leading to cycles of starvation for the large ungulates, and to erosion of mountain streams. Beavers were crowded out, according to one theory, causing the range to dry up. It might have contributed to conditions that cause forest fires.

One can get carried away with this kind of thinking — you may have been sent videos with titles such as “How Wolves Saved Yellowstone” — but it does seem that natural infrastructures can be thrown out of whack by seemingly small factors.

Here’s another example, and it cuts the other way, at least as far as elk are concerned: Six years ago today, University of Wyoming researchers released a study showing that the introduction of lake trout in Yellowstone Lake for the purposes of sport fishing had devastated the population of native cutthroat trout in the lake and its tributaries. Grizzly bears feed on fish, but have trouble getting to lake trout (which are actually char, not trout) because they dwell in deep parts of the lake. So with fewer cutthroat trout spawning in the park, hungry grizzlies have taken to killing and eating elk calves.

Another study, made public earlier this year, found even more sweeping impacts of the invasive fish, none of them good. The presence of lake trout and resulting decline in cutthroat also led to a drop in zooplankton. This made the water clearer, which in turn, warmed the lake. Fewer cutthroat also hurt the otter population, while also having deleterious effects on ospreys and bald eagles.

A century ago, when wolves still roamed California, famed Yosemite naturalist John Muir put it this way: “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)

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