I’ve written several posts on the wolves of the Yellowstone. Their re-establishment as a part of the natural landscape is a success story all around. When the idea of introducing captured wolf families back into the Yellowstone area first gained wide notoriety, I was still a student at the University of Wyoming. There followed many years of contention, lawsuits, counter lawsuits, threats and legislation. And underpinning it all was a multitude of studies. The studies covered virtually all known aspects of the impact that the wolves would have; from the damage they were sure to do to the sheep herds, to the income they would bring into the area as people flocked in to see them in the wild. I haven’t read all of the reports, of course, but I read many of them. I wanted to be sure that I understood the facts and assumptions in each, as I had friends on both sides of the issue, and I didn’t want to feel like I had to support one position or the other based on friendship.
Even though many of the studies commented on the fact that the wolves would bring a “balance” back to the fauna in the Yellowstone, it was rarely mentioned that the wolves would bring a balance back to the flora as well. It was mentioned as a tertiary effect at best, noting that the ungulate population would face pressure from the wolves. As usual, nature has a way of surprising us though, and as the wolves have become a fixed part of the Lamar Valley, the change in flora has been dramatic in areas where the wolves rarely go themselves.
With the tenth anniversary of the wolf reintroduction this last summer, it is clear that one of the areas most impacted by the wolves is the riparian areas along the many streams and rivers that abound in the Yellowstone. The riparian areas along the valley bottoms are a haven for fish and fowl. The cool waters shaded by aspen offer protection to many of the trout species native to the area, while the trees and bushes along the banks are home to native and migrating fowl. The stability of the riverbanks is greatly improved as tree and grass roots hold the soil firmly while the waters pass. Areas that used to be trampled and grazed by the elk are now growing up again, and in a few tens of years will be much the same as when white men first came to the area. It is hard to think of an area more important to the ecological well-being of a valley than the riparian belt, and it’s hard to think of a western valley without the line of aspen wandering along the bottomlands as the mountains tower above. The newfound growth of aspen, cottonwoods and the many plants that they shelter is a direct result of the wolves. Wolves tend to prey on elk in the open. The wolves are not always successful in taking down the elk and muleys in the open, in fact the estimates are that they are successful only one in ten times that they try to kill and elk. But that’s apparently enough that the elk no longer feel safe standing around the streambanks, where grazing on young aspen shoots was easy and the water near, but protective woods far away. The ungulates feel safer now in the more dense forest growth along the northern and eastern facing slopes in the foothills. They don’t have as easy grazing on the aspen shoots, but the wolves don’t have an easy time grazing on them.
As a diehard libertarian (small “l”), I believe that the best government is one that interferes the least. However, in areas where it has interfered, with things like a bounty on wolf skins, it is perhaps best if it interferes once more, like in this case, to restore a balance that was upset. In the case of the Rocky Mountain wolf population, government interference was justified. The result is a land returned, and a balance restored.
And a thing of beauty.
(photo of a healthy Rocky Mountain riparian streamside courtesy of The Itinerant Angler)