A closer look at Yellowstone’s top dog: Packs improve park’s eco - KBZK.com | Continuous News | Bozeman, Montana

A closer look at Yellowstone’s top dog: Packs improve park’s ecosystem

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Say the word “wolf” in Montana, and you are sure to get a comment.

No creature inspires more emotion than the wolf. Completely removed from the Yellowstone National Park region by the government in the early 1900s, the wolf was once again part of the Yellowstone ecosystem, again by government action when they were reintroduced in the 1990s.  

Back then many feared the wolves would take over as an unchecked population.

“The wolves have not increased exponentially forever, which was all over newspapers when we reintroduced them,” said Doug Smith, Yellowstone National Park Wolf Biologist. “They've come down and although this is outside the park, the states have been able to manage them like other wildlife.”

“The big concern, the hand waving, that this is going to, ‘all the elk are going to die and we're just going to be overrun by wolves and then they're going to go after livestock and then they'll come after us....’ That has not happened,” Smith said.

In fact, the wolf population in Yellowstone has declined over the past few years.

“That is the underlying premise of the National Park Service: let nature take its course,” said Smith. “And that has happened in Yellowstone. We have fewer wolves now, about 100 in 11 packs than we did 15 years ago.”

Wolves like elk and Yellowstone's elk herds have declined, and the wolves take some blame. But the reduction of elk has also allowed the vegetation in some areas to return and that has brought about the return of other smaller creatures to the landscape.

“But they're not the only thing that caused the elk to decline,” Smith said about wolves. “There are other carnivores and people are managing for fewer elk and because of all that, Yellowstone's probably better now than it was 20 years ago without the wolves.”

Yellowstone’s wolves have also sparked an unplanned benefit.  Smith says groups of people visit the park exclusively to try to see wolves.

Yellowstone’s wolves, like all wolves, are also on the move

“The GYE (Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem) wolf population is very similar to the wolves right next door, which is right next door to Canada,” said Smith. “These animals have been interchanging genes for thousands of years. We just took them out for 70 and put them back and they didn't miss a step, they picked up where they left off.”

Yellowstone's wolves have been tracked in Idaho, north of the Canadian border and as far south as New Mexico.  Smith says that assures Yellowstone's wolves will survive - as long as they are allowed to.

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