Saturday, January 17, 2009

Stuffing the wolves back in the bottle

Wildlife management must be a lot like trying to stuff a genie back in the bottle. Consider the recent suggestion of reintroducing wolves to Rocky Mountain National Park.
The suggestion comes on the heals of the “elk problem” there — with the current elk count estimated to be over the number the ecosystem can comfortably handle in that habitat. That, in turn, causes the herd to be unhealthy and vegetation in the park and in surrounding areas to be negatively affected.
Scientist studying the reintroduction of gray wolves in Yellowstone National Park claim the returning natives have benefited the park there. The last wolf prior to reintroduction was killed in 1926. The wolves, reintroduced in 1995 have grown in number to 250 to 300 and have begun hunting and eating elk.
“The elk leftovers provide food for animals such as ravens, eagles, and bears. Wolves also scare elk from the streams. With fewer elk near the water, plants that grow there, such as willows, can grow taller,” according to the National Geographic Society.
“Benefits of the this new plant growth include more habitat for birds and more plant food for beaver,” according to William Ripple, a forest ecologist at Oregon State University as quoted in National Geographic.
Naturally, stockgrowers in Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana are not real fond of the reintroduction (understatement, understatement, understatement) as they see them as a threat to livestock, household pets and perhaps even humans under certain conditions.
One of the most interesting aspects to this complex matrix is that Elk, were nearly extirpated from Colorado in 1900.
“Through restoration with Elk from Wyoming and progressive management, Colorado’s elk population is estimated to have increased to about 300,000 animals in 2002. Elk are likely at carrying capacity the habitat in some areas,” according to Colorado State University’s Cooperative Extension website.
The same source suggests that elk cause damage by browsing on trees and shrubs in orchards, shelterbelts, nurseries, ornamental plantings, etc...
“The increased population of elk are having a significant impact on regeneration of aspen seedlings, especially in areas such as Rocky Mountain National Park. The Colorado Division of Wildlife paid $90,000 -$190,000 annually from 1996 to 1998 for compensation for damage inflicted by elk,” notes the Cooperative Extension site.
So it appears we managed the elk so well that now we have different problem. It makes me wonder if 100 years from now, if we might not be pining for the good old days of the beaver trappers, free-ranging, hostileUtes, Comanches and Arapahoes, and devastating wildfires. Maybe we already are.

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