No other sound in nature is more iconic than the howling of the wolf. It’s a spine-tingling, thrilling sound that reverberates to the very soul of those lucky enough to hear it. A symbol of the wilderness, the wolf’s presence in an ecosystem signifies the overall health of a region, because the area must have enough habitat and game animals to support such skilled predators. But the howling of wolves is a sound that almost vanished from the world not long ago. If not for the efforts of conservation groups, wolves would have perhaps gone extinct. Yet their successful reintroduction in certain areas has brought with it controversy, leaving many wondering whether having wolves returned to their native habitats is, in fact, a good thing.
The eradication of wolves from America began almost as soon as the first European settlers arrived on its shores. Between the settlers’ long-held fears of the villainous creatures of fairy tales and the animal’s predatory nature leading them to feeding on livestock, wolves were hunted without mercy. As the tide of humanity moved west, bounties were placed on wolves and the animals were shot, trapped, and poisoned to near extinction. Even as the settlers’ thinking evolved and old fears diminished, the killing continued.
It’s long been believed that humans and wolves can not coexist in the same place. Their competition for food and habitat made wolves obstacles in the way of progress, in need of eradication. In fact, it wasn’t until they were almost completely extinct that the slaughter of the species finally stopped. In 1974, they were officially put on the endangered species list. Although this stopped the slaughter, wolf numbers continued to decline with the loss of their habitat, and it was only then that environmentalists began to think that maybe, just maybe, they should try to bring the wolves back.
Only 25 years ago, 14 imported wolves from Canada were released in Yellowstone National Park in the first attempt to bring the animals back to their home range. Since that reintroduction and later plantings in Idaho, the wolves have flourished, repopulating the region both inside and outside of the park. The Yellowstone wolves fed predominately on elk and deer, reducing those species’ numbers and changing the animals’ foraging behavior. This has enabled the recovery of vegetation that had been vanishing from chronic over-browsing. It is believed that, in turn, this growth has helped create greater ecological diversity and resilience within the park’s northern range.
With more vegetation available, populations of animals such as bears and, more significantly, beavers have been able to rebound, creating a healthier environment overall. Wolves are a keystone species, and their success in Yellowstone demonstrates their vital importance to the ecosystem. These results have driven other states to push for legislation mirroring that which worked so well in Yellowstone. Not everyone is happy about this. Few feel the effects of the drop in game populations that come with the presence of wolves quite like hunters and outfitters.
Since the reintroduction of the wolves, deer and elk populations in the states of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming have dropped nearly 80 percent in areas where wolves live. The elk population in Yellowstone National Park itself was approximately 17,000 animals when wolf reintroduction began in 1995. By 2003, the number of elk in the park had fallen below 10,000, and by 2007 had dropped to 7,000. As of 2019, the elk population of Yellowstone sits at around 4,100 animals.
This is not only due to direct predation but also due to lower birthrates. The latter stems from the fact that elk and deer living in the presence of wolves have substantially decreased progesterone levels in their systems. Progesterone is a hormone necessary to maintain pregnancy. So not only are the wolves preying on these animals, their very presence lowers birth rates. These drops in population numbers have drastically affected hunting in these areas. States and counties have been forced to lower the amount of tags they can offer to hunters almost yearly, as well as limiting areas where hunters can hunt. In states such as Montana, where tourism to the state depends heavily on hunting season, the wolves are biting a substantial chunk out of the state’s revenue.
Therein lies the issue. On one hand, wolves are an iconic keystone species that can reduce overpopulated game animals and aid in creating healthier habitat overall for all animals. However, in the wolves’ absence, man has become the top predator in most ecosystems, with big-game hunters acting as the significant controller of big-game populations. With wolves being reintroduced and man still hunting, is there room for the two to coexist? With reintroduction plans on the ballots for Colorado, Utah, and Arizona being met with significant resistance from the hunting community, perhaps we’ll never find out. For now, perhaps we must be content with hearing the howl of the wolf in places where they currently thrive and hope we can find some middle ground where we can happily coexist in the future.