Ramblings From the Ragged Crumbling Edge Of The Reality-Based Community

Monday, February 02, 2004


...back in 1995, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began importing wolves into the greater Yellowstone ecosystem in an effort to reintroduce this predator to that ecosystem. This effort was undertaken not only to honor part of the Service's mission to restore extirpated species into their former home range but also to attempt to restore a degree of natural balance in the predator/prey relationships that would otherwise have been naturally been found in these high wild places had not a century of aggressive hunting and trapping erased wolves from the picture. The introduction of a reliable predator capable of managing otherwise unthreatened elk populations played a role in this decision. Because of the lack of human pressure within Yellowstone National Park itself, wolf populations have increased impressively in a relatively short period of time. It is now becoming apparent that benefits beyond the mere natural reduction of elk herd size are being realized as a result of this experiment. Riparian vegetation that has been subject to overbrowsing for decades is beginning to flourish as a result of changed behavior patterns by the elk herds; this improvement in the health of riparian vegetation yields a secondary benefit in the increased shade provided to streams, which lowers the water temperature in park streams and improves the living conditions for resident fish species dependent on cool water for success, if not survival.

Today, America's most famous stretch of wilderness has become an ecologist's bonanza. It appears to be evolving in reverse -- returning to a time when flora and fauna were in a balance dictated exclusively by forces of nature, not by humans: "For the first time in 70 years, the park has a complete suite of predators and prey," Ripple said. "This is a grand experiment."...and grand it is. This natural regeneration of riparian hardwoods, not to mention the natural inmigration of active beaver population to these streams and the habitat and hydrologic benefits they can provide, offer a compelling glimpse into the world of possiblities presented to out-of-balance ecosystems treated through the human introduction of biological controls.

It is safe to say that the cattle-ranching industry has offered less that welcoming open arms to the reintroduction of wolves into this vast ecosystem encompassing the Idaho-Montana-Wyoming border country: "I used to lose five or six head per year," said rancher Dave Nelson, who grazes about 1,000 cattle on lands abutting both the park and the Idaho preserve. "Last year, I lost 21 head, and the year before that, I lost 15. I can't tell you definitely it's wolves, but I highly suspect it."

One particularly industrious lupine individual actually migrated as far as Eastern Oregon, setting off alarm and panic worthy of nothing less than a siting of a car-load of Middle-Eastern-looking men with firearms driving down some small cowtown main street. Cattlemen's concern, given their central role in sanitizing the west of wolves, is somewhat understandable, although programs are in place to repay them for losses due to wolves. What was somewhat less expected was the resistance offered by elk hunters and the packers and guides that service them. There was a time when the Park itself managed elk herds by shooting and leaving elk to keep numbers down in the 3000+ range and minimize overgrazing within the park. Hunting groups eventually prevailed on the agency to stage elk drives across the North park boundary instead of engaging in their own elk-shooting adventures, which created the famous "Gardner Firing Line" outside of Gardner, Mt, where hunters lined up to take a crack at herd members coming across the boundary, literally using their truck hoods as bench rests to provide steady aim at the throngs of elk being herded across the imaginary "hunt/no hunt" line.

Suffice it to say, there is some dispute regarding the impact that Yellowstone wolves are having on the business of hunting near the park boundary. The Park Service tried in the '60's to maintain approximately 3000 elk in the park (and still had to address concerns about overgrazing); later managment techniques saw the herd balloon to over 19,000 animals. The large numbers meant that a lot of elk were available for hunting as they came across the boundary, leading to a fairly robust industry supporting elk hunters. Herd reductions resulting in part from recent severe climatic conditions, in part from other predation, and in part from the wolf introduction, have become an economic concern for this industry.

...so, here we are again. An effort to introduce a biological component to an aspect of natural resource management runs up against the entrepreneurial spirit of remote small town residents that don't otherwise have a lot going for them. On balance, I suppose, I have to heave a heave sigh and say the the benefit to the ecosystem, in my view, outweighs the economical benefit that might be gained by allowing ecologically unsustainable elk populations to exist for the benefit for the hunting guide and support industries. Lord knows that I've seen various versions of this same them play themselves out, frequently to the detriment of the small towns that populate the west, but the traditional issue has always involved timber harvest that has sustained these communities for longer than I've been alive. As a native of the intermountain West, I also know full well that there are plenty of other places to hunt for elk, that this hunting-based economy has a relatively short history, and it's decline may require some dislocation on the part of some of those who support the hunting industry. For the rest, it represents a loss of supplemental income to that they already earn as part of a Yellowstone portal community. To a certain degree, I don't like myself for the selection I have made, but in this case I have to choose the wolves over the hunters.....

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