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Thoughts on Wolf Reintroduction & Ecosystem Restoration

Biohabitats’ Leaf Litter
Vol. 3 Number 1
http://www.biohabitats.com/ndg_newsite/newsletter/number.08/newsletter.htm

Thoughts on Wolf Reintroduction & Ecosystem Restoration

The wolf…the big bad wolf, has gone from being admired and even worshiped in ancient times to persecuted, poisoned, slaughtered and extirpated from most of the United States. Embedded into our nursery rhymes, folklore and psychic, the wolf is now teaching us valuable lessons about the roles top predators (keystone species) play in maintaining a healthy ecosystem. We now know that keystone species such as wolves, by virtue of the key roles they play in the overall structure and functioning of an ecosystem, are essential to its integrity. They play a critical role in defining the mosaic pattern of vegetation, energy and nutrient cycling and the life cycles of species associated with their habitats. If we are serious about conserving our natural heritage and restoring fully functioning ecosystems, then we must give careful consideration to keystone species. What better species to turn our attention to than the gray wolf (Canis lupus).

The gray wolf originally was found throughout the northern hemisphere in every habitat where large ungulates were found. From mid-Mexico and India to the North Pole, the wolf roamed areas as diverse as Israel and Greenland. As human settlements encroached on wolf habitat, encounters with wolves increased, especially with livestock. Firearms, poisons and traps were developed and used ruthlessly against wolves. In Eurasia, most wolves disappeared except in mountainous regions of Italy, northern Spain, Eastern Europe, as well as the northern parts of the former Soviet Union and the central plains and mountainous regions of Asia. In North America, wolf numbers declined until about the 1950’s. Populations survived in Canada and Alaska, but the only area within the 48 contiguous United States that held a viable population of wolves was northern Minnesota and nearby Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior.

Recognizing the importance of wolves and their interaction with the landscape, countries throughout the world are finding ways to coexist with this keystone species. In Spain, wolves live in wheat and sunflower fields with human densities of up to 200 people per square kilometer. In Canada, Alaska, Scandinavia, the Mideast, and much of Asia, wolf numbers are stable or increasing. The World Wildlife Fund and the World Conservation Union (IUCN) took great interest in the wolf, and the animal was listed in IUCN’s Red Data Book of endangered species.

In the United States many programs are being employed to repatriate wolves to some of their historic ranges. One of the leading scientists engaged in wolf reintroduction in the United States, Ed Bangs, speaks with Leaf Litter on efforts to reestablish a viable wolf population to the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem. Ed shares his thoughts and observations on how the wolf has reinitiated ecosystem processes that have been missing for the past 70 years. Speaking of sharing thoughts, responses to our Leaf Litter survey on wolves drew an overwhelming response. Many of you were not shy in sharing your opinion on what appears to be a lively and still very contentious issue.

In your next encounter with a predatory keystone species (before you start running), take stock of the profound significance these creatures have on the landscape. And remember, it takes a full suite of species to make our ecosystems, and psyche whole.

– Keith Bowers, Principal
Biohabitats, Inc.

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