High among the Rocky Mountain tops lies a plateau area called Yellowstone National Park. Known for its diverse wildlife, it boasts to be the most active geothermal habitat in the world. The Park claims more than 10,000 thermal features, including hot springs, mud pots, and fumaroles. Most famous are the geyser basins that provide daily entertainment for park goers as pools of heated water throw up gaseous steam and spray from the bowels of a volcanic earth. Established in 1872, the Park was the first declared national park in the world. For fifty years the park remained a perfect ecosystem.
At the top of the food chain was an established sub-species of the gray wolf nicknamed Northern Rocky Mountain Wolves. This wolf kept the entire ecosystem in check; that was until the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. It was during Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency that a practice called Predator Control Campaigns began.
Roosevelt was an avid hunter. He also considered himself a passionate naturalist and sought to understand the balance between establishing a wildlife reserve in Yellowstone, while allowing hunting and also seeking to understand the role of the predator. Roosevelt sought to justify hunting by marrying all the components, wildlife preservation, hunting and predator conservation into one neat world view that was ultimately designed to benefit what he called in his book, The Wilderness Hunter, “the free, self-reliant, adventurous life.” Unfortunately, during that period of history, no one understood the importance of a healthy ecosystem and how all the parts, from the top to bottom were interdependent.
Considered a vicious predator, by the beginning of 1926, the last of the wolves were eliminated from the Park. A seventy-year-wolf-drought ensued. During that ecosystem famine, the entire park suffered devastating results. Wildlife such as beaver, predatory birds, waterfowl and land birds began to disappear. At the same time, coyotes and herds of elk began to proliferate.
Also during the same seventy-year period the study of science flourished, and scientists began to understand the importance of ecosystems. During the same period, true conservation groups established themselves and began putting pressure on the Federal Government to fix the ecosystem of the Park. All concerned groups recognized that the explosion of the elk populations was causing devastation to the park lands. Thus, in the 1970’s an effort to recover wolves to the Park was proposed. A twenty-five-year battle began.
Finally, in 1995, thirty-one adolescent Canadian wolves were tranquilized, delivered to the Park and released. By January of 1996, an additional thirty-five wolves were released in another section of the Park. For scientists and conservationists, it marked a last-ditched effort to save the wolf species from becoming extinct in the wild. However, the release was not without controversy. The resistance to the release claimed the wolves would devastate the grazing animal populations. In fact, the opposite happened!
Within a few years, the rivers dramatically improved. Summer flows improved, fish spawning increased, and vast numbers of waterfowl began to return. Also, beaver populations began to boom. The Park became a microcosm study of just how critical a balanced ecosystem is for the survival of all species.
Before the wolf returned, the elk grazed in the open and were without fear. Their natural behavior was to graze on the move, never staying in one place too long. Without their number one threat, the wolf, their new behavior radically changed the landscape, especially along river banks where they grazed everything to the ground. Trees and shrubbery couldn’t establish themselves. Thus, the river banks became weak resulting in erosion as silt poured into the rivers. The trampling by the herds further decimated the river banks. Silt buildup destroyed spawning pools decreasing fish populations.
Before the removal of the wolf, everyone worked in unison with each other from the top of the food chain to the bottom. At the same time, everything natural from the forests to the rivers to the grasslands and wetlands flourished. Without the wolves, it all went to hell.
With the reintroduction of the wolf, fear of the wolf caused the elk to retreat to their natural habits. That retreat enabled trees and shrubs to recolonize river banks. The recolonization of the banks led to rivers going back to their natural flow. The trees brought back the beaver population. Trees are now culled naturally by this docile rodent as they build their dams and lodges. Those beaver dams created spawning ponds for fish which fed bears and predatory birds. The ponds created by the dams provided food and a habitat for aquatic insects which provided food for waterfowl and fish. Enriched soil encouraged further growth of trees which provided for more nesting sites for birds and squirrels as non-aquatic insects proliferated. The result, everyone, and everything once again flourished. The prosperity restored balance and established a wealth of knowledge for science.
Where the intervention of humans had a devastating outcome, this new human intervention had a lasting benefit at all levels of biodiversity for Yellowstone.
So why is Yellowstone back in the news in 2016?