“When the gray wolf was extirpated from Yellowstone National Park in the 1920s, more was lost than just the noble and fascinating predator. The park’s entire ecosystem changed. Now, nearly a dozen years since the wolves returned, the recovery of that system to its natural balance is well underway”, say ecologists William Ripple and Robert Beschta of Oregon State University. The researchers began studying the interaction of wolves with other parts of the ecosystem somewhat indirectly. “Back in 1997, I became aware that the aspen trees in Yellowstone were declining,” Ripple explains. “There was disagreement and confusion as to why these trees were disappearing, so I set out with graduate students to unravel this mystery.” As the wolf population in the park has grown, the elk population, their most favoured prey, has declined. Before the reintroduction, the EIS predicted that wolves would kill an average 12/wolf elk annually. This estimate proved too low as wolves are now killing an average of 22/wolf annually. This decline in elk has resulted in changes in flora, most specifically willows, cottonwoods and aspens along the edges of heavily timbered areas. The constant presence of wolves has pushed elk into less favorable habitats, raised their stress level, and lowered their nutrition and their overall birth rate.
A wrinkle on the economic argument is that the reintroduction of wolves will reduce the number of hunting permits made available to human hunters, who no longer have to choose deer herds. This is possible, although it has not yet come to pass. A healthy population of reintroduced wolves will certainly reduce the numbers of deer in the area. This eliminates the need for hunting as a wildlife management tool, but it does not do away with sport hunting. Unlike other large predators, such as grizzly bears and cougars, wolves are frequently labeled by the public with “human-like” terms such as "cruel" and "vicious," and often considered...
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