Wolves Can Help Restore Ecosystems

gray wolves photo

Image credit: Paul Stevenson/Flickr

Reintroducing wolves into native habitats, researchers from the National Park Service write in the latest issue of BioScience, can help restore damaged ecosystems. Doing so in national parks and other areas, they say, would foster greater biodiversity and could even encourage tourism. But there is a caveat: The initial populations would have to be small and carefully managed, not self-sustaining.The presence of wolves in a habitat reduces the number of ungulates, or hoofed animals, which in turn allows plants to flourish. An increase in biomass, the authors write, leads to a subsequent increase in biodiversity. Problems arise in areas that have critically small herds of ungulates and when wolf populations explode, leading to interactions with humans and, in rare cases, unbalanced ratios of predators and prey.

However, by introducing wolves as "ecosystem stewards" and not pioneers of new sustainable communities, researchers can keep their numbers low, preventing overpredation and avoiding unwanted interactions with humans. If such a program is successful, the report suggests, it could even help foster tourism and improve the public's perception of wild wolves.

How to Manage Wolves

gray wolves sleeping photo
Image credit: dobak/Flickr

The proposal raises an obvious question: How do you manage a wolf population? The method that would likely be used in such a program would be contraception or sterilization.

Research has shown that when a pack's alpha animals are prevented from reproducing, animal and pack behavior is unchanged. This means that they continue to hunt, defend their territory, and socialize normally. However, because the alpha animals dominate mating, it effectively limits the pack's ability to grow.

Advanced tagging and tracking technologies, based on GPS, helps researchers keep close surveillance of the pack's location and behavior.

In this way, researchers would be able to control and monitor a small pack of wolves without the use of lethal management techniques.

Understanding the Cull

A discussion of the "management" of wolf populations cannot be mentioned without an acknowledgement of lethal techniques, most notably wolf culls.

Traditionally, wolf management programs have sought to eliminate the interactions between farmers, agricultural animals, and wolves. These interactions, of course, increased because the spread of farmland impinged on the natural habitat of wolves.

Contemporary culls, however, have focused on preserving, and increasing, the numbers of undulates—specifically elk and moose. These popular game animals have been important for the local economies of areas where culls have been implemented. Such programs promote an unnatural balance between predators and prey and are inherently unsustainable—once started, culls must happen every year to maintain the artificial balance.

A Loaded Issue

Any new proposal about wolves—whether it's a move to list them as an endangered species or remove their protections, introduce them to a new area or allow a hunt to take place—generates fierce debate. Aggressively managing small, isolated, packs of wolves, especially if it requires permanent sterilization, is no less controversial.

Bringing wolves back into their traditional homes—our national parks—and demonstrating that they are a healthy, indeed essential, part of these precious ecosystems, is likely the only way attitudes towards these incredible animals will change.

Read more about wolves:
Wildlife Prize Winning Photo is a Fake
Sweden Allows Wolf Hunting After 45 Year Ban
Bad News on the Wolf Front - Key Alpha Wolves Killed in Montana
One of Only Three Wolf Pairs in Oregon Killed
Gray Wolves Are Back on the Endangered List... For Now
No Longer Endangered, Gray Wolves to be Hunted by the Hundreds

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