courtesy of the National Parks Traveler
by Beth Pratt
National Parks Traveler Contributing writer Beth Pratt recently caught up with Douglas Smith, who has been studying wolves for more than 30 years and who currently leads the wolf project in Yellowstone National Park. He is the co-author of Decade of the Wolf, a book that details the historic wolf restoration in Yellowstone. The two talked about the current status of wolves in the park and their impact on elk populations.
Do you think the population has stabilized?
“To a degree, and I guess the message from this trend is “less is more.” The wolves for many years overshot the capacity of the ecosystem, and now we are seeing a balance—a balance of all parts not just wolves. When wolves weren’t in Yellowstone the system was out of whack because there were tons of elk and tons of coyotes and other things suffered as a result. Now there’s greater balance among both plant and animal species.”
“I imagine this is more what Yellowstone was like before it got changed because of European humans. From research we know when you have a full suite of carnivores, you have lower densities of the main prey species, but you also have really resplendent and luxurious vegetation. Because without predators the herbivores are mowing it all down. In the lower 48 we eradicated wolves before we knew what they did, so we have these erupting game populations that exceed what a healthy ecosystem can sustain.”
Many have been critical of the wolves for reducing the elk population and don’t see a decrease in elk as a positive development.
“It’s incredibly painful dealing with people who don’t like wolves and say they have devastated the elk herd. And it’s difficult to talk to people who just want Yellowstone to be an elk farm. Yes, with carnivores you have fewer animals to hunt. But this is the way it was in Yellowstone before we interfered and we need to know what it was really like and be honest about it. I’m not saying I am in favor of predators being everywhere, but what’s happening here is a system being restored to balance.”
“When we start killing predators because we want more animals to hunt, it becomes agriculture. It’s like spraying weeds. Is that what we want the forests and the landscapes of the West to be, a big farming operation? An author I read recently said when wolves go, wilderness goes and I agree. I don’t want the world to be so highly manipulated that we have no place where wild nature can just be.”
“I hunted elk for four days this year and I didn’t get one and I am not disappointed. So I had four great days in the wilderness hunting and I did not take a shot. And I will do it again next year and if I don’t get one I am okay with that. I don’t live on elk. It’s a recreational pursuit. I don’t need to kill an elk to feed my family and I would say there are very few people who do.”