EcoJournal: Month of the Wolf

Four events centered around “Month of the Wolf” at the University of Colorado, Boulder, provided valuable information about the reality of wolf research and wolf politics today.  I’ll attempt to give a brief synopsis of the first two events here.

The first lecture, by David Armstrong, Professor Emeritus at CU, was entitled “The Wolf and the Tangled Food Web.”  Dr. Armstrong began with a history of the wolf, which originated in Eurasia and spread into North America about one million years ago.  The ancestors of gray wolves coexisted with the Dire Wolf for about 100,000 years, until that species became extinct.  In a map illustrating the distribution of mammals over the last 40,000 years, Armstrong noted that today, many of those animals are confined to extremely diminished areas due to a human explosion that has occurred within the past 200 years.  Our civilization has made a profound impact in a very short time.  A satellite map revealed the distribution of humans over the continent, denoted by varying concentrations of electric lights seen from the night sky.  It was powerful evidence that large mammals like bears, bison, and wolves, are being restricted to less and less territory.

On April 13th, Tim Hogan, a botanist and Collections Manager at the Herbarium, and creator of the current wolf exhibit at CU’s Museum of Natural History, presented a lecture entitled “Join the Conversation: Yellowstone Wolves.”  Focusing on the research conducted at Yellowstone National Park since the re-introduction of wolves in 1995, he explained how the presence of wolves changed the behavior of deer and elk, by keeping them moving in the landscape.  No longer over browsed, stream beds and aspen groves began to recover.  These riparian zones (the interface between land and stream), and riparian vegetation were restored to a level that hadn’t been seen since wolves were removed from Yellowstone in the 1920’s.   Beavers began to build dams, thus creating wetland environments beneficial to many other species.  The return of wolves to Yellowstone illustrates the trophic cascade – where “top predators in a food web suppress the abundance of their prey, thereby releasing the next lower trophic level from predation.” (Wikipedia)  The lower trophic level in this case is plants.  Hogan stated, “The reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone was the most important act of ecology and conservation in the past century,” and that it was “hard to overestimate the importance of this act.”

More on Month of the Wolf to come.

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