By Beth Stewart
China = pandas. India = Bengal tigers. Every continent has their share of beloved endangered species. But what about us? One of the world’s most beautiful and endangered animals lives right here in the good ole U.S.A. Head to Yellowstone and you’re practically guaranteed a sighting of this classic American icon – the gray wolf.
Unfortunately, the wolf is not universally revered like the panda. Instead, it’s one of the most polarizing animals in this country. The debate about whether or not it should remain on the endangered species list has been raging for years. But one thing that cannot be disputed is the important role wolves play in balancing our ecosystem.
Hunted to near extinction by the mid 1930’s, wolves now occupy only 8 percent of their historic range. For 70 years wolves were absent from Yellowstone leaving the unchecked elk and deer populations free to eat most of the vegetation down to nothing. When wolves were finally reintroduced in 1995, the effect they had on the park was nothing short of miraculous.
The overpopulated elk herds declined allowing trees and groundcover to rebound bringing back songbirds, insects and beavers. Beaver dams created habitat for reptiles, trout, otters and amphibians. Out-of-control coyote populations decreased which increased rabbit and mouse numbers bringing in more hawks, foxes and badgers. Even the bears couldn’t complain because their favorite berries grew back in abundance on regenerating shrubs.
All this healthy vegetation keeps rivers from flooding. Less flooding means richer soil that’s better able to sequester carbon. Less carbon helps slow climate change. This is all happening, thanks to the wolf.
Scientists from around the world have flocked to Yellowstone to study the effect wolves are having on the ecosystem. In the few other areas of the country where wolves have been allowed to thrive, habitats are thriving there too. We should be protecting these valuable ecosystem engineers – not spending millions of taxpayer dollars (like Idaho is proposing) to eliminate more than 500 of their state’s 680 wolves.
Living with large carnivores isn’t always easy. But it can be done. The Grazerie, Canada’s first certified predator-friendly ranch, employs a number of successful strategies to reduce livestock losses. The owners are committed to ranching with methods that protect predators because they recognize the value they bring to our planet and our economy. But perhaps more importantly they recognize that wildlife belongs to the public.
The wolf is the people’s predator. It doesn’t belong to any special interest groups. It belongs to you and me. And it should be the pride and joy of this country.
You actually have a say in this: Until March 27, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is accepting comments on this matter. Click here to tell them what you think.
This post originally appeared on Bites @ Animal Planet: http://blogs.discovery.com/bites-animal-planet/2014/02/the-wolf-of-main-street.html
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Beth Stewart.
Beth Stewart is an Associate Creative Director for Animal Planet. She spends most of her spare time volunteering with animals, photographing animals, advocating for animals and generally being wrapped around her two cats’ little paws.