Wolves, Wildfire and Water

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The spectacular Amangani in Wyoming is the type of place that is tempting to never leave but with such incredible surroundings and a excellent in-house guide program, getting out and exploring is a must. We caught up with Jared Paul, wildlife expert and Activity Director at Amangani to get his take on some of the hot topics in the west.

Having spent several weeks traveling through Wyoming and Montana, one issue that consistently came up when I spoke to people was the wolves and the impact of their reintroduction. Do you come down on either side of the debate?

I come at this from several different angles. I make my living as a wildlife guide and obviously seeing wolves is a really important part of that. That’s looking at it selfishly. But from a more practical point of view, wolves are a vital part of the ecosystem and they were brought back with a lot of vision and foresight. However it is certainly not without its problems. As well as being a wildlife guide, I am also an avid archery hunter. I kill and butcher all my own food. It has taught me how to harvest animals to sustain myself. I would say that most hunters, and of course ranchers, are 100% anti wolf. I’m not that way but I understand there needs to be a balance.

I think wolves are now an essential part of a balanced ecosystem, they help cull the herds and strengthen the gene pool by removing the sick and the weak. They were first reintroduced in northern Yellowstone. I can’t remember how many, 30 perhaps, but it was a small number and very quickly they started to re-populate. One of the reasons they were brought back in the first place was to control the elk herds, which were over abundant. Hunters may disagree but that was the opinion of most biologists. They were over-grazing, over-consuming and negatively impacting the ecosystem. While the elk population was initially slowly depleted it was actually another species, coyotes, that was impacted first. They hadn’t lived alongside wolves for 70 years and their population plummeted. As this happened, the population of another animals, the antelope-like pronghorn, rebounded. Adult pronghorn are too fast for coyotes but they do prey on the calves, so the relationship started to come back into balance.

The next thing that happened was that the elk population began to drop and as it dropped something really interesting happened. A lot of the vegetation that they had been consuming started to grow back and one of the first, or most significant, was willow, a riparian plant that grows near water. As the willow came back, songbirds, which had been gone from Yellowstone for decades, reappeared. The beaver population, which relies on willow to build their dams and lodges, started to recover. The fishing also improved, as willow flanks the river, cools the water and provides a habitat for the aquatic insects that trout feed on.

So I think the reintroduction of wolves has had a lot of positive impacts but it still requires management. You can’t introduce a top predator without having a control mechanism. After a decade of population growth the government relinquished their control and put the management in the hands of the individual states: Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. That’s where a lot of the conflict lies and each state has a different strategy. Today Montana and Idaho are going ahead with some limited wolf hunts. They have been very controversial but I think they are very important. Wyoming has gained and lost control of its wolf population several times. Most recently control has been handed back to the government. Ultimately I think this came down to bad management strategy. We listed too much of the state as a predator zone, areas where wolves could be shot on sight. The strategy is now being restructured, so that wolves can be controlled as a predator in areas where ranching is the dominant industry but are given greater protection in areas where tourism is more prevalent. The bottom line is that wolves are here to stay and the approach needs to be one of compromise.

It’s a fascinating debate and one that is starting to rear its head in the UK with the prospect of reintroducing wolves in Scotland.

It also seems that the wildfires are also another environmental hot potato.

To a lesser extent. We could talk about a fires, a changing climate, and water is of course always a big issue. We’re lucky here being at the head of the water system but it’s a huge issue throughout the West.

Down here (near Jackson) we have been relatively lucky with wildfires but the event that really changed things was the huge 1988 fire that swept through Yellowstone. Prior to this the approach had been to suppress even the smallest fires in an attempt to minimise the impact on tourism, but the whistle was really blown in 1988. They will now let the smaller fires burn naturally, which helps thin out the forest and hopefully prevent a much bigger fire from taking hold. Interestingly many of the tree species have what’s called a serotenous cone. They only release their seeds under the application of extreme heat. So fire is an essential part of the ecosystem.

It’s not really a question but on the subject of water, I was amazed that you can stand in Yellowstone next to two streams, one flows west to the Pacific and the other empties into The Gulf of Mexico.

Yes, it’s the Continental Divide. Guests are often surprised that it runs through Yellowstone, thinking that it marks the middle of the country rather than the divide between the two watersheds. You can drop a popsicle in two nearby streams and they will end up thousands of miles apart. The Yellowstone River actually runs north before joining the Missouri and then the Mississippi. The Snake River, near Jackson, runs West before joining the Columbia and emptying into the Pacific. It confuses people.

 

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