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A Part of the Western Landscape

"Why," comes up often in the discussion of wolves. Why did we restore them to their native range? Why are they important? The short answer is, "Wolves belong." They are as much a part of the Western landscape as elk, mountain lions and bears. And, like them, wolves should be managed with sound science and respect. Without wolves, the West isn’t the West.

Understanding the Role of Wolves

Wolves have a long history in the West. They were here when Native Americans first inhabited the land and when Lewis and Clark explored the mountains and plains of the Northern Rockies. Wildlife biologists consider wolves an “apex” predator, which refers to their central role in maintaining a balance in nature. Wolves primarily hunt old, weak and sick animals in a herd—not the large, healthy animals—which is good for the overall health of elk herds and other game.

In addition to keeping game herds healthy, the return of wolves has triggered other benefits. Wolves disperse elk, preventing them from over browsing stream banks. Researchers have documented the return of thriving stands of cottonwoods and willows along streams since the wolves’ return, which benefits beavers, songbirds and other wildlife. Numerous wildlife scavenge wolf kills, including ravens, magpies, golden eagles, bald eagles and grizzly bears. Wolves have reduced Yellowstone National Park’s coyote population, leading to increased populations of pronghorn antelope and red fox.

Pack Structure

Studies of wolf behavior have revealed just how much wolf packs resemble human families. Wolves develop close relationships and strong social bonds within their family groups, and may even sacrifice themselves to protect the family unit. Usually just one pair reproduces, though all members of the family unit help care for offspring.

At some point after reaching sexual maturity, wolves decide to leave their family pack and strike out on their own in search of mates. Understanding how far wolves are likely to move during that time, the obstacles that wolves face as they try to move across state boundaries, and how many wolves are needed to ensure good genetic exchange between populations, is critical to the recovery of this species in the Northern Rockies.

Also, because wolves are pack animals with clearly defined leadership, they react uniquely to human management actions such as hunting. For example, packs sometimes break up if one of the alpha animals is killed. And that can lead to an increased risk of younger, more inexperienced wolves attacking “easy” prey such as livestock. Hence, certain management techniques, like hunting, could actually increase livestock conflicts, leading to a call for careful monitoring of pack behavior and conflict rates for packs that lose an alpha animal during the first hunting season after wolves are removed from protection under the Endangered Species Act.

We have learned much about wolves and packs over the past decade, and we’ll need to use that knowledge wisely and continue to build on it in order to reduce conflicts and successfully manage wolves as we do other game species.

 

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