Why The Fuss About Wolves?

There is an ongoing discussion among conservationists when it comes to which species to protect, and which ones to allow to die out. As conservation efforts have limited resources, and as larger and larger portions of the planet are being developed to meet the needs of human population growth, the idea that we can try to save all species that face extinction is, unfortunately, quite naive. One such animal that finds itself in the center of this debate is the panda, which costs a fortune to keep alive and breeding with little to no chance of their numbers becoming stable in the wild again. Some argue that we shouldn’t spend such enormous amounts of money on keeping the panda alive when those resources could be better spent elsewhere, just because it is cute and cuddly. Others argue that it’s cuteness is precisely why so many people donate to keep it alive in the first place, and thus it should be protected in order to encourage enthusiasm towards conservation efforts.

I have heard similar arguments made not by conservationsists, but by laypeople in regards to wolves. Many, even those who are not enthusiastic about conservation, have heard and one point or another people discussing wolf populations, either efforts to reintroduce them into places where they have been extinct for decades, or decrying countries like Norway for allowing hunters to kill off huge percentages of their wild wolf population legally.

What, I am often asked, is the reason behind all of this fuss over wolves? I mean, they are predators! They kill other animals, they are just one more danger to humans, and farmers hate them because they kill off the odd sheep as well. Why spend all of this money and make such an effort to reintroduce a couple dozen wolves into places where no one wants them, when other species could be protected instead?

Recently, I came across a video that summarizes the case study of Yellowstone National Park very nicely. In just a few minutes, you can see what a huge impact wolves can have on their ecosystem.

Despite their villanous representation in cartoons or certain nature documentaries, top predators are essential to the balance of life as we have enjoyed it for centuries. Wolves are incredibly important, and can do wonders for their ecosystems.

And, let’s not forget that without wolves, we would have never had dogs. And without dogs, videos like this would never have existed, and what a tragedy that would have been for all of us.



  1. Andrew Dalke says

    The paper “Interactions among herbivory, climate, topography, and plant age shape riparian willow dynamics in northern Yellowstone National Park, USA” argues “Our results contribute to a growing body of evidence showing that changes in growth of woody deciduous plants following the reintroduction of wolves cannot be explained by the trophic cascade model alone”.

    The Native Americans were kicked out of Yellowstone in the late 1800s. Another way to say it is that one of the apex predators of Yellowstone, present for over 11,000 years, was removed from the ecology. I believe the argument for reintroducing wolves to Yellowstone is also a good argument for restoring traditional hunting and access rights to Native Americans.

    That of course opens another can of worms. Is the goal to improve species diversity, or to emulate some some (pre)historic ecology (in which case Native Americans should be there), or implement some romantic view of Yellow ecology where humans aren’t present? We can’t make Yellowstone emulate the ecology before the Great Pleistocene Die-Off, and of course it’s only been 60,000 years since Yellowstone was an ecological wasteland.

    • thoughtsofcrys says

      Generally speaking, improving species diversity is a top goal when it comes to conservation. Good species diverstity, and genetic diversity within species, is one of the best models for a flexible ecosystem which is more tolerant to stress, which it will undoubtedly face with climate change. Also less erosion is a positive in most cases.

      • Andrew Dalke says

        As you point out, conservationists must balance many goals. People may want wolves in Yellowstone, but people also want to treat it as a safe park they can visit. Visitors may pay good money to see “the wild”, believing that no humans live there, even in places where humans have lived for 10,000 years.

        I believe that removing indigenous humans from the Yellowstone ecology in the 1800s caused a negative trophic cascade, and hypothesize that re-introducing more of the wider range of neolithic land practices may improve species diversity.

        Here is an example of one possible negative cascade. I’ll quote http://nativeamericannetroots.net/diary/688 that in 1887 NPS officials complained about Shoshone burning grass. “Burning the grass was a standard Indian way of managing the land and increasing the yield of deer, elk, and other mammals. Regular burning allows for a larger carrying capacity. Many non-Indians, however, felt that burning was bad for the land.”

        It took about 100 years for the non-Indians who manage Yellowstone to learn that deliberate burns could, among other things, be used to restore or maintain healthy ecosystems.

        However, I have not been able to find anything which supports or invalidates my hypothesis. Did species diversity decrease after the US took over? Was it because of changing land practices? The reintroduction of wolves affected game animal behavior. Do traditional hunting practices do the same? All of this sounds very people intensive and thus very expensive. I also expect a lot of political difficulties.

        I suspect that there are similar sorts of questions concerning Australian ecology.

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