Wolves are making a comeback across the United States and around the world. But why is it worth it? We explore efforts of rewilding in North America and Europe, what it would mean to restore biodiversity and species in natural ecosystems.
Rewilding in North America
The grey wolf is probably not an animal that a hiker would want to come across, in fear of being its next meal. It may seem bemusing then that back in 2020, in the US state of Colorado, voters backed proposition 114: a plan to reintroduce wolves back into the state.
It’s not as if wolves are alien to the area. They survived in Colorado for thousands of years, only to be hunted into local extinction from most of the US by the early 1940s. They were declared ‘the beast of waste and desolation‘ by Teddy Roosevelt, ironically an American president famous for his love of nature.
Nowadays, the thinking has changed. Wolves are being seen as increasingly important to restoring healthy ecosystems. Intentional reintroductions and increased protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) mean wolves are now regaining ground in many western states.
Perhaps the most famous place wolves have been reintroduced is Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. Yellowstone is famous for its iconic wildlife, ranging from 136 Grizzly bears to 4,829 American Bison but it hadn’t always been like this. Before 1995, there were no wolves in Yellowstone, so elk populations grew beyond healthy numbers and overgrazed on plants such as aspen and cottonwood.
Ecologist Mark Boyce’s research was important in demonstrating the wolves’ wide-ranging benefits. Wolves for example, encourage elks to preferentially browse on conifers instead of aspen. Unfortunately, in some areas, wolf-reintroduction wasn’t enough to fully restore native plant cover due to the disappearance of beavers that had impacted stream dynamics affecting natural vegetation regrowth.
However, wolf predation also keeps elk numbers lower which can provide potential habitat for species such as beavers, which have established nine colonies since 1995. Furthermore, studies suggest that more stable cycles of elk deaths benefit a multitude of species. Ed Bangs, wolf recovery coordinator for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, supports this view.
Image credit: Mike Goad
Researchers at the University of California also found that grey wolves may help buffer the effects of climate change. Because of climate change, scavenging species such as the golden eagle will have up to 66% less carrion to eat in winter, but with wolves present this drops to 11%. The main reason is due to a lower herbivore death-rate in the tamer winters, but wolf predation effectively offsets this.
Yet not everyone is supportive of reintroduction. In Colorado, proposition 114 was an incredibly close vote: the yes vote only won by 1.82 %. Opponents claim that wolf reintroduction in Colorado will result in increased attacks on livestock and document the fact that wolves could spread diseases such as grey wolf disease to cattle. These concerns are understandable, but might be exaggerated. In 2015, livestock killed by wolves was dwarfed hundreds of times by other causes of death, including coyote attacks and natural illness.
Despite this, the fact that wolves do sometimes prey on free ranging animals such as cattle makes local ranchers anxious about reintroduction. In some ways, the battle to reintroduce wolves is symbolic of a larger culture war in America; between a liberal populace in cities such as Denver, who are generally supportive of environmental measures, and conservative rural areas who see such initiatives as an attack on their way of life.
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Image credit: Colin Brown
In October 2020, further polarisation occurred. The Trump administration fully removed the grey wolf from the endangered species act, claiming wolf numbers had recovered enough for this to be necessary. This move allows for states to reduce their wolf numbers significantly via hunting sessions. In Wisconsin, 218 wolves were killed in four days, after the delisting occurred.
The decision drew criticism from some scientists with 100 biologists sending a joint letter to the administration, decrying the move as premature. A scientific paper by biologist Carlos Carrol criticises the move as a minimalist approach that doesn’t respect that a diversity of wolf populations are needed to maintain a healthy species. Since the delisting, the State of Montana has set a target to eliminate 90% of its wolves. There are fears that federal targets like these are too severe and will harm the integrity of wolf populations.
But even before the Trump administration’s decision, individual states had significant control over their wolf populations. In Idaho, the grey wolf was removed from the state’s endangered species list and as part of an annual harvest season, 570 wolves and 35 pups were killed in one year, resulting in an outcry from environmentalist groups. It remains to be seen whether the Biden administration will reverse the grey wolf delisting. Despite vigorous calls by many environmental, political and community groups, the current administration has not yet reversed this decision.
A Wilder Future
Overall, scientific evidence suggests that reintroducing wolves will likely contribute to restoring the health of human-impacted ecosystems across North America. However, as public perceptions of the issue are mixed, scientists must make sure to communicate their findings clearly not only to local people, but also to sceptical politicians.
Some scientists fear the effects seen in National Parks aren’t replicable in other areas due to the dominance of human influence. Because of this, future protected areas will have to be made larger if wolf reintroduction is to be successful. Despite uncertainty about the prospects of the wolf in the US, future wolf reintroduction is being discussed in places ranging from Japan to Scotland. Reintroducing wolves, represents one example of a larger trend known as ‘rewilding’. The aim of rewilding North America is to attempt to restore degraded habitats by reducing man-made pressures and reintroducing locally extinct plant and animal species. Rewilding doesn’t just involve reintroducing apex predators though. It is important to ensure that a natural mix of species is present, ranging from carnivores to small herbivores and plant species to fully restore a functioning ecosystem.
With rewilding in North America is becoming a popular concept, similar arguments will likely come up all around the world. The return of extinct animals will often bring environmental benefits but ultimately, success will depend on whether local people can be won round to the idea and whether a suitable combination of species is able to restore a thriving nature.