The Yellowstone Wolf Myth

Yellowstone National Park sign at the North Entrance;
Jim Peaco; October 1992

There is a recently released documentary video that is gaining steam. It’s called “How Wolves Changed A River”. You may have seen it. Heck, it’s had over 39 million views on YouTube. Good chance some of you are those viewers. I mentioned it in a previous blog post Lost Connection with Nature.  Lately I’ve been seeing more references to it. It’s designed to tug at the heartstrings and is being used by animal rights groups to show why wolves should not be hunted. The problem is, the concept presented in the video is myth. It has been debunked by numerous scientists.

Photo National Park Service

The documentary video is based on a scientific theory, Trophic Cascade. I’ll avoid getting down into the scientific weeds here, but the theory says reintroduction of one animal species at the top of the food chain into an environment totally changes the ecosystem. In this case, the video producer contents that reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone National Park in 1995 totally changed the ecosystem. To the point it changed the flow of the Lamar River through the park. That’s heavy stuff!

I first became aware of the video when a friend shared it on Facebook and, knowing I’m a hunter and do some wildlife habitat reading, asked my thoughts. While watching the video my Spidey senses began to tingle when the narrator referred to elk as “deer”.

That started me on my research journey. I thought the theory interesting but needed more information. Turns out life isn’t that simple. As Aldo Leopold contends in “A Sand Country Almanac” the natural world is connected in ways we know, and ways we don’t yet know.

The first thing I learned is Yellowstone suffered massive wildfires in 1988 burning nearly 800,000 acres. That’s seven years before wolves returned. Due to the destructive nature of wildfires, significant impact was made on the Yellowstone ecosystem. Native plants were destroyed, new plants regenerated, wildlife species relocated, and subsequent rains on a vegetation barren landscape could have changed river paths. The fact is, the ecosystem was in its early stages of natural regeneration when they dropped the truck tailgate to release the wolves.

We have to look no further than where I live here in Western North Carolina to see the visible evidence of wildfire. We had two massive (for our region) wildfires in 2016: the Silver Mine Fire in Madison County in the Spring and numerous wildfires in the Nantahala NF in October-November of that year. Anyone who has visited those areas in the intervening period can see the results. The environment has changed there hasn’t it?

The video has other glaring omission errors, probably intentional. An article from the NRA Hunters’ Leadership Forum says some of the key footage showing habitat improvement is not from Yellowstone, or is from parts of Yellowstone not part of the normal wildlife habitat.

Also, the video contends the wolves reduced the elk, bison, and deer population to allow the natural regeneration. Yes, wolves are predators on those species. But elk and bison also learn to adapt to predators, and herds simply scattered or relocated and soon returned. The habitat is now much as it was pre-wolf.

Photo U.S. Park Service

Scientists who have actually spent time on the ground in Yellowstone largely call the video hype and say it is myth. Current research shows that beavers have a greater impact on Yellowstone’s rivers than do wolves. A scientist at Colorado State University suggests that changes in precipitation, stream flow, floodplains and water tables are also contributing factors to ecosystem change, probably more so than wolves.

I guess my point here is nature isn’t that simple. We have been scientifically studying wildlife and ecosystems in this country for nearly a century. Yes, we have learned a lot. But there is still much we don’t know. We know what kind of habitat wildlife desires and needs to survive. Carrying capacity for wildlife is based on several factors including a variety of cover and food sources. And either an overabundance or reduction of a species in that habitat can impact the ecosystem. Unforeseen events like wildfire, floods, and disease also changes an ecosystem. Did the chestnut blight decades ago change our mountain habitat? You bet.

In our instant information society we would like to attribute everything that happens in nature to a single event or magic bullet. Nature is too complex for that. When we are presented with a simple solution to a natural phenomenon we should question its precept. Our society has largely lost connection with nature and we still have much to learn. The answers can be found in science, not emotion. Let’s keep learning and studying to improve our understanding of our earthly home. I know that every time I visit nature it is a learning experience.

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