Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

National Geographic “Wolf Wars”

Posted 28 Sep 2010 / 0

In the March 2010 issue of National Geographic there’s an excellent article on the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park entitled “Wolf Wars”. I was excited to discover it because I use the example of how wolves were brought back to Yellowstone as a way of discussing various issues in population and community ecology in my non-majors ecology course.

In the past I have used two other articles, one in BioScience and another in Scientific American, as background material for my students. While these are excellent articles, they are each over six years old, and the story of Yellowstone is quickly unfolding. While it does not delve deeply into the comprehensive science being done to study the effect of wolves on the Yellowstone ecosystem, this new National Geographic article does serve to provide an “update” on the status of wolf repatriation.

Articles in National Geographic are almost always noteworthy for their use of images to tell a story, and this article is no different. Excellent illustrations portray Yellowstone before and after the return of wolves, and there is a nice map showing the distribution of wolves as well as beautiful photographs of wolves and their prey.

Several of the major community issues that I discuss in class are well-covered in this article. The article talks about the history of Yellowstone, starting with the extirpation of wolves and the resulting overpopulation of grazing ungulates, primarily Elk. Without making explicit reference to the community interaction web as a whole (which is depicted in the BioScience article), the article talks about the effect of wolves on their prey and competitors. We learn how Elk initially reacted to wolves (apathy and perhaps confusion) and although there is no explicit mention of behavioral adaptation or coevolution, there is a discussion of the dramatic change in Elk behavior. The more recent story of the burgeoning wolf population is also discussed, with increasing population size starting to lead to more intense intra-species competition and “social regulation”.

The other big strength of this article is its really vivid discussion of the “human component” of the wolf restoration story. We get the views of several stakeholders, and gain an on the ground understanding of how wolves negatively impact ranchers and the hunting industry. Portrayed with balance, this conflict is explained as a work-in-progress,  and we get the sense that there is an environmental justice issue here: if we want to maintain wolves (as a social good), we need to make sure that certain members of our society do not pay an inordinate price for the presence of wolves. Ironically it is a particular set of industries (ranching and hunting) that could potentially pay more than their share while the larger society enjoys the benefits of the richer ecosystems engineered by the presence of wolves: usually, it is the other way around, with society as the whole paying costs while specific industries benefit. The article describes the “range rider” program, a creative means of promoting coexistence of wolves and cattle ranches, and also explains the importance of reimbursement programs that provide support to ranchers who lose their stock to wolves.

There is also a little bit here about the role of the Endangered Species Act, and the controversial de-listing and subsequent re-listing of wolves and bears.

Anthropogenic Change, Articles, Biodiversity Loss, Conservation Biology, Ecology Education, Grasslands, MSCI-270, Ecology, Reviews, Temperate Forest

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