The wolves in Yellowstone are an amazing sight to behold, and this year is a noteworthy year to behold them, as it marks the 25th anniversary of their official reintroduction to Yellowstone National Park. While wolves were once the top predator in the world-famous park, the wolf population was eradicated by the 1920s, leaving the wilderness wolf-free for seven decades. In 1995, however, wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone, a milestone for conservation that gave biologists a unique opportunity to study what happens when a top predator returns to an ecosystem.
Bringing back the wolves struck a nerve among ranchers who feared the wolves would wander out of the park and kill their livestock. But wildlife biologists felt the wolves played a key role in the ecosystem, including controlling the elk population, which had ballooned in the wolves’ absence and wreaked havoc on the range.
In fact, the reintroduction of the wolves not only reduced the elk population to healthy numbers, it dramatically changed (and continues to change) the park’s rivers, forests, and the landscape itself— a ripple of direct and indirect consequences throughout the ecosystem. For instance, without the wolves, elks wouldn’t migrate during the winter, instead choosing to graze on young willow, aspen and cottonwood plants. This made it tough on the riparian environment, especially for beavers, who need those plants to survive in winter.
When the grey wolf was reintroduced into the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in 1995, elk herds started to feel more pressure to keep moving. Willow stands eventually recovered from their intense browsing, as did the the species that rely on them. They once again provided shaded pools for fish, habitats for songbirds, and wood for beavers to build their dams.
At the time the wolves were reintroduced, there was only one beaver colony in the park. Today, the park is home to nine beaver colonies, with the promise of more to come. Additionally, researchers from the University of California at Berkeley determined that the introduction of wolves has resulted in a more equitable distribution of carrion throughout winter and early spring, benefiting scavengers both big and small, from ravens, eagles, and magpies to coyotes and bears (grizzly and black).
In this era of extreme land management, species removal, and even extinction, Yellowstone offers us a rare opportunity to document what happens when an ecosystem becomes whole again—when a key species is added back into the ecosystem equation. Today, more than 90 wolves in eight packs now call Yellowstone home, and America’s first national park is one of the best places in the world to see them, thanks in no small part to Yellowstone Forever (formerly Yellowstone Park Foundation).
When the original federal government funding to reintroduce wolves to Yellowstone ran out, Yellowstone Forever stepped in to provide the resources necessary to keep the Yellowstone Wolf Project on track, giving biologists and field staff the support they need to continue year-round research on pack numbers and behaviors, pup survival rates, health issues, and wolves’ relationships with prey species.
Our support of these efforts are critical not only to the continued success of Yellowstone’s wolves, but also to wildlife recovery efforts around the world, which rightfully view the return of the iconic grey wolf as a victory for wildlife, the environment, and the restoration of balance to the greater ecosystem.
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