YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK – The Perfect Ecosystem Storm – Part I

Park 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.

Rocky Mtn wolf 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.

Canadian Wolf 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.

elk herd 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.

beaver dam 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?

8 Comments

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8 responses to “YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK – The Perfect Ecosystem Storm – Part I

  1. Thank you for posting this! Too few people know the facts. Don’t mess with Mother Nature. We are finally learning. Massachusetts has “Wolf Hollow”, and I have learned more from there than I ever knew. It is also a great place for school field trips.

    • I just looked up Wolf Hollow, Massachusetts and my heart stopped. I wish I lived nearby so I could go visit the sanctuary. I’m sure you’ve learned a lot. I just don’t understand why humans keep doing what we do. Humans follow the old adage about insanity. We keep doing the same things over and over and are surprised the outcome is always the same. My hope for humanity is dwindling and that makes me sad.

      • Wolf Hollow is also a teaching facility. I took my preschool class there a number of times. We saw one wolf ‘timed out’ because he wasn’t doing his fair share of work in the family. Pretty cool. A wolf howl is actually quite soft sounding, not scary at all. I still have hope. Your blog post is proof that we can learn and do better. The news often shows all the things we do wrong, or as you say over and over. Many thanks!

        • When my husband retires a year from now, we will take a number of road trips. My birth state is Rhode Island. I graduated from Hingham High School in Massachusetts. Although I haven’t lived there for over forty years, I still remember the road trips, .e.g, up the Mohawk Trail during the full regalia of autumn. I am putting Wolf Hollow on my list for us to visit. Maybe too, I’ll write a blog about the behavior of wolves. Or, you could do that. They’re not at the top of food chain for nothing. They are highly organized and dedicated to the pack. I love the time out lesson! Humans could learn a whole lot about caring for the ecosystem via pack dedication. Humans have fallen to their own myths, especially the ones about individualism and self-importance. I just went to one of our bookshelves and pulled out a book I purchased and read years ago. It’s called The Wisdom of Wolves – Nature’s Way to Organizational Success written by Twyman L. Towery Ph.D. I’m going to read it again.

  2. Maribeth, this post is a valuable lesson that many don’t know. Thank you for bringing it to the forefront again. I’ll be interested in reading your next contribution to this subject.

  3. Thanks, Coco. I was inspired to write the blog after watching a nature special. I am an animal activist and am involved with several groups. I finished writing the blog and realized the last National Geographic Magazine that came in last week continues the saga. I knew both the Grizzly bear, bison and even the wolf were all in jeopardy in the Park. Now I can read the issue that concentrates exclusively on the Park to write my follow up. I don’t know if you saw my post today but I learned that Africa’s western black rhino has been declared to be extinct. There aren’t even one left in captivity. I couldn’t stop crying today after I read that. Even as I write this my eyes are welled with tears.

  4. We took our sons to Yellowstone while they were campaigning to bring back the wolves. The boys were fascinated and so were we. But now I’m wondering about that question you ask at the end. Surely they’re not going to cull them again?

    Meanwhile our beloved Oregon wolf hides out far from the realms of man. Wise creature.

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