The famous and oft-invoked story of the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park after nearly a century of absence may have some gaps, according to one biologist.
Could the role of wolves in transforming the ecosystem in the iconic park by eating elk, thus allowing for the regeneration of trees and from that, other wildlife, be overblown? Recently a video about how wolves transformed not only the flora and fauna but also the very geography of the rivers went viral, and Indian Country Today Media Network showcased it as well.
But giving wolves credit for what is known as a “trophic cascade” may obscure other aspects of what is going on in the park and the ecology as a whole, wrote Yale postdoctoral fellow Arthur Middleton in a March 9 opinion piece for The New York Times. While the notion appeared “to make good sense” at the outset, he said, deeper study revealed that the wolves had not influenced events to the degree that was at first inferred.
“By insisting that wolves fixed a broken Yellowstone, we distract attention from the area’s many other important conservation challenges,” he wrote. “When we tell the wolf story, we get the Yellowstone story wrong.”
For one thing, elk are tougher and Yellowstone a more complex ecosystem than originally thought, he noted. In addition, to focus solely on wolves as agents of change can obscure the fact that temperatures are at their highest in 6,000 years; infestations of fungus and beetles are eating away at whitebark pine; and migratory wildlife is being affected by drilling for natural gas, Middleton wrote. In other words, there are many more environmental problems afoot, many more than the wolves could influence, he said.
Though turning wolves into the bogeyman is not the answer, neither is “reciprocal myth making,” Middleton wrote.
Read Is the Wolf a Real American Hero? in The New York Times for an alternate perspective on the wolf issue.