Here’s an overview from the Wyoming Sierra Club on some of the good things wolves do for their environment, for those who need reminding…
BENFITS OF WOLVES
Wolves play a vital role in maintaining the health and sustainability of the landscape in the greater Yellowstone region and our western lands. They are a keystone species, one that has a disproportionate impact on its environment relative to its abundance. Since their return in 1995, wolves have benefitted this ecosystem by regulating prey numbers and movements—allowing streambank habitats to recover, reducing densities of coyotes, and providing food for scavengers.
The most recognized and well-documented ecological benefit of wolves is that they have resumed the important role of maintaining healthy wildlife herds in the northern Rockies by selecting young, old, physically impaired, or diseased animals. (5) By reducing prey numbers, dispersing these animals on the landscape, and removing sick animals, wolves also may reduce the transmission and prevalence of wildlife diseases such as chronic wasting disease and brucellosis. (7)
In addition to improving the overall fitness of wildlife herds, wolves have also altered the behavior of their prey, leading to a cascade of beneficial effects on the landscape. In the absence of wolves, elk tended to browse heavily in the open flats along rivers and wetlands, since they did not need to evade predators by seeking thicker cover. Without fear of wolves, elk over-browsed the vegetation inhibiting the growth of new trees. Since the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone, elk spend more time in the safety of thick cover or on the move.(6) As a result, riparian areas and aspen groves that had been suppressed by decades of over-browsing are regenerating, improving habitat for species like beavers and songbirds.(3) Beavers, which create wetland habitats with their dams, have improved water quality in streams by trapping sediment, replenishing groundwater, and cooling water.
Species that rely on healthy riparian habitats and benefit from the presence of wolves in Yellowstone National Park include:
g Yellowstone cutthroat trout and other native fish
g Waterfowl (ducks, geese, trumpeter swans)
g Songbirds (such as warblers, wrens, and thrushes)
g Small mammals (such as beavers, muskrats,
and other rodents)
g Insects, amphibians, and countless other species (3, 6)
wolves and coyotes
In the absence of wolves, coyotes became a top predator in the ecosystem, but they are not large enough to regulate elk, deer, and moose populations.(2) The return of the wolf restored a natural complement of predators to northwest Wyoming and returned the coyote to its role as a mid-level predator.
wolves and scavengers
Scavengers, such as ravens, eagles, and bears, also benefit heavily from the return of wolves. Wolf kills provide scavengers with an important source of protein, particularly in winter. Twelve species of scavengers are known to visit wolf kills in Yellowstone National Park. (10) Ravens are especially attuned to wolves and may fly over wolf packs as they pursue prey, allowing them quick access to wolf kills. In turn, wolves may benefit from ravens by following them to carcasses that can feed both species. (8)
Prior to the reintroduction of wolves, scavengers were more dependent on animals that died due to harsh winters. Since snow is thawing earlier as a result of a warming climate, there are fewer winter kills available for scavengers. Wolf kills may help buffer the impacts of climate change for scavengers by providing them with a food source in the
The return of the wolf to Wyoming has had significant ecological benefits in a relatively short period of time. Ecological concerns contributed to the decision to return wolves and should play a role in how states manage this keystone species. Although it is easy to focus on the perceived negative impacts of wolves, it is important to recognize the actual benefits they provide to our ecosystem. By regulating wildlife herds and reducing the prevalence of diseases, revitalizing riparian areas, reducing coyote densities, providing food for scavengers, and indirectly improving conditions for a host of other species, wolves play an essential role in maintaining the ecological health and integrity of the landscape.