A few weeks ago, I visited Yellowstone Park with my videographer friend John. John is working on a documentary film about the gray wolf. Living here in the West and specifically in the Northern Rocky Mountains, the issue of the wolf is extremely controversial. Wolves disappeared (were killed) in the Lower Forty-Eight in the 1920s. In the mid-1990s, wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone Park and Central Idaho. Today, the wolf is surviving – and some claim thriving.
The controversy is straightforward. Are wolves a good part of nature and the ecology as a whole, or are they a menace threatening livestock, game animals, and even man?
My opinion has been formed from the work John has been doing. The bottom line is it’s complicated. It’s not black and white – good or bad – wolves do well in the wild but need to be managed when their hunting territories overlap with people and civilization.
Here are some of my findings and thoughts about the wolf.
- Seeing wolves in the wild up close in Yellowstone was exhilarating. There are eleven packs of wolves living in Yellowstone Park. About 100 total wolves. Being a wolf and surviving is a hard life.
- Wolf packs rival for territory. The alpha males of rival packs will often fight to the death for dominance. Wolves get kicked by elk (their prey) and suffer broken bones and even death from injuries sustained when hunting.
- The alpha male and alpha female of a wolf pack are the breeding pair. Wolf packs in Yellowstone are as small as three (Agate pack) and as large as 19 (Mollie’s). There are also a few loner wolves who roam the park.
- The reason we know so much about the wolves of Yellowstone is because of the work being done by the Yellowstone Wolf Project (YWP). Dr. Doug Smith has led the Project since the reintroduction of the wolves to Yellowstone in 1996. The YWP has only three full-time employees, but has dozens of volunteers who are dedicated to learning about the wolves and their daily habits.
- I personally found the community of volunteers to be very knowledgeable and helpful to a novice wolf observer like me during my recent visit to the park . Special thanks to Doug McLaughlin who took the time to answer lots of my questions and share his experiences from going out daily for the past six years to spot the wolves.
- It was funny to hear the experts like Doug McLaughlin speak to each other by saying things like, “Number 754 just arrived at the carcass.” The wolves have numbers – not names. These experts know almost every wolf by number, color, and unique physical features.
- Ranchers don’t like the wolves, especially when they kill their livestock.
- Hunters generally don’t like the wolves, as they believe wolves decrease the amount of game available to hunt. And my hunter friend Steve told me of standing back-to-back with his hunting partner – pistols drawn – as a pack of wolves howled nearby.
- There is some evidence that suggests the mountain lion actually kills more elk than the wolves during the course of a year.
- Mistaken identity accounts for many ‘wolf’ sightings – or mis-sightings. Wolf tracks are identified scientifically by fourteen different measurements and can be easily confused with a large dog’s tracks or other species.
- Wolves that interfere with people, their livestock, and their livelihood clearly need to be managed. But when people venture into the wild, caution and common sense need to be exercised. Generally, people in the wild are not attacked by wolf packs.
- There are about 100 wolves living in Yellowstone National Park. By contrast, there are more than 600 grizzly bears living in the Park. If that same ratio exists in the entire Northern Rocky Mountains, then the approximately 1,650 wolves in the Northern Rockies seems like a number whereby man and wolf can coexist.
- The wolf is a handsome animal. It was inspiring to see them in their natural habitat eating an elk carcass, interacting with each other within the rules of the pack, and howling to communicate with each other.
Note: All photos credited to John Williams
Next Blog Title: Front Porch Thoughts – Wolves (More Pictures)
Next Blog Date: May 1, 2012