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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Return of the Wolf

Air Date: Week of

For most of the twentieth century, the Northern Rocky Mountain wolf was rendered extinct from Yellowstone National Park, mostly due to predator control by humans. But scientific research and a change in public sentiment led to efforts to re-colonize the park. Author Rick Bass comments that a decade after wolves were brought back to Yellowstone, the landscape has been dramatically transformed—in color and in the balance of nature.


YOUNG: When Yellowstone National Park was first established in the late 19th century, it was home to the Northern Rocky Mountain wolf. But predator control in the park in the early 1900s meant wolves were shot, trapped and poisoned.
For seven decades the wolves were nowhere to be found in Yellowstone. An increase in scientific research and a change in public sentiment led to a plan to re-colonize Yellowstone with wolves. Author Rick Bass says ten years after the wolves were reintroduced, the park has a new and unexpected vitality.

BASS: There is color in the land again. Or perhaps the color was always there, like a pigment in the soil that was simply rendered imperceptible for awhile. How can black and silver wolves combine, like pigment, to unleash a new surge of yellow warblers and brilliant tanagers back into a landscape long absent such colors? How can the crimson blood of elk in the snow release a bluebird?

Upon the wolves' return, so sudden was the transformation that it seemed a marvel that the landscape – brittle and fractured as it had become in the absence of even that one species – had been able to hold together as well as it had for those seventy or so years. In the ten years since the wolves have been back, they have reshaped huge sections of an awkwardly leaning ecosystem, one which in many places we did not even recognize as leaning.

By pruning wildly excessive elk numbers, the Yellowstone wolves kept the elk herds on the move, allowing overgrazed areas to recover. The elk were no longer encamping in any one spot like feedlot animals, and the restored riverbanks served as nesting and feeding habitat for songbirds of different hues. Blink, and a howl equals the color yellow.

Now, the elk are not living as long. Their trophic capacity is being redistributed with greater alacrity, greater vitality, throughout the Yellowstone ecosystem. There is greater turnover in the mortality game upon which wild nature, and what we think of as a healthier nature, relies so powerfully.

Where previously the overcrowded and static elk and deer herds conspired to keep stands of aspen from regenerating, browsing with sharp teeth the young aspen suckers as soon as they emerged, the beautiful groves of aspen, with snow-white bark and quivering gold leaves in the fall, are now prospering. Flaring back up on the landscape like so many tens of thousands of autumn-lit candles. Entire mountain ranges are being painted anew.

The return of the aspen and other deciduous saplings to the hoof-cut, denuded riverbanks once abused by too many elk has been good for more than songbirds and artists. Beavers, also, have prospered, able now to access their requisite building and feeding materials without needing to venture so far into dangerous territory. This has resulted in the return of more backwater ponds and pools and eddies. In these shallow areas of submersion young cottonwoods prosper, more flame color, and more beaver habitat.

We can spend centuries trying to chase down and quantify relationships in the natural world, but in a wild and healthy landscape there will always be vast quantities of unknown relationships, and immeasurable consequences. It is in our last few big wild landscapes, I think, where the potential, the opportunity, for discovery remains strongest, and might be most easily or readily encountered. The wolves have returned home, bringing great color and breathing a life-force that some, in an upside-down world, view as destructive. They have become our instructors and we are watching them with fascination, with our senses as well as our returning knowledge – like hunters ourselves, re-engaged and keenly alert.

YOUNG: Rick Bass lives in the Yaak Valley of Montana. A longer version of this essay appears in the July/August issue of Orion magazine.



Orion essay by Rick Bass


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