This post is a guest blog by Beth Stewart, a photographer who recently traveled to Yellowstone National Park for the opportunity to photograph wolves.
It’s hard to describe the thrill of watching an apex predator drink from a stream barely 200 yards from you. The wolf I was watching had just sauntered away from one of Yellowstone’s biggest carnivore dramas in recent memory.
The source of all that drama was a fresh bison carcass. FOUR wolves and FIVE grizzlies were all trying to lay claim to it. A huge male bear had control but a determined female and her three butterball cubs were making a pretty strong case for themselves. All the while, the wolves circled, waiting for the right moment. Hungry ravens and magpies egged them on. Amidst the chaos, a bald eagle soared off into the early morning haze. A ranger told us he’d never seen this kind of predator interaction in his 20 years at Yellowstone.
Later that day we watched four Junction Butte wolf pups play together in the distance. A black adult male sat quietly nearby, “baby-sitting.” The resident wolf researcher told us he hadn’t been seen in months. She seemed relieved by his reappearance. There are currently about 80 wolves living in Yellowstone. Over the last few years at least 10 of them have been shot outside the park’s border. Eight were wearing research collars.
The wolf is one of the most polarizing animals in North America. Hunted to near extinction by the mid 1930s, this keystone predator now occupies only about 8 percent of its historic range. It wasn’t until 1973 that wolves were protected by the creation of the Endangered Species Act. When they were reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995, the effect wolves had on the ecosystem was nothing short of miraculous. The overpopulated elk herds declined allowing trees and groundcover to rebound. When the trees and shrubs came back so did songbirds, insects and beavers. The beavers brought back reptiles, trout and amphibians. Even the grizzlies couldn’t complain because their favorite berries came back in abundance.
Recently, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed removing the gray wolf from the Endangered Species list in the lower 48 states. They believe it has reached sustainable breeding populations. Many scientists and conservationists disagree.
Wolf watching brings in an estimated $30 million annually to the towns around Yellowstone. Some states like Montana have already delisted wolves. This hunting season they’ve sold over 6,000 licenses. ($19 a piece for locals) Each license allows a person to kill up to five wolves. The current wolf population in Montana is 625.
Recently, I took a day off and testified in opposition to the FWS proposal to delist wolves. In my opinion, leaving wolf management up to the states is not in the best interest of the long-term recovery of the species.
We all can make a difference. If you want to see wolves in the wild please click the link below and speak up for them. It only takes a minute. FWS is accepting comments through December 17th.