A curious member of Washington's Lookout Pack. East slope of the North Cascades; photo by David Moskowitz

Gray Wolves in Washington: A History of Protection and Trophic Cascade

This is part 10 in the series: Graduate Natural History Projects

This Naturalist Note was written by graduate student Liz Grewal as part of the Fall Natural History Project in North Cascades Institute’s Graduate M.Ed. coursework. You can view other students’ work here.

The conversation was by chance. It turns out that when you flag down a US Fish and Wildlife officer to avoid hitting a snake in the road, they will stop to try and address your needs. Officer Jason Day indulged my rapid-fire questions about his career and shared various stories of wildlife and the Methow Valley community. The stories of poaching particularly piqued my interest, and I wanted to know more about a topic I would have never imagined happened in the United States. I was not naïve to people killing deer out of season, but people killing animals protected under the Endangered Species Act was news to me. Officer Day told us a story from the valley of the White family who had poached a wolf. 

Wolves, like humans, require large home ranges and territories. Humans and wolves are both diurnal, social hunters. They both follow similar prey in hunting parties. Humans and canines have a complex and storied history of both co-operation (through domestication) and conflict. In David Moskowitz‘s book, Wolves in the Land of Salmon, he comments on the connection between wolves and humans: “As we look in this mirror, wolves are also good at pointing out how our choices affect the region’s ecosystem as well” (Moskowitz, 2013).

A gray wolf from the Lookout Pack in northeast Washington encounters a trail-cam. Photo by: David Moskowitz

The conversation of the reestablishment of wolves in Washington is continuing to happen; and as it moves forward I believe it is important to keep in mind of what we fear and value: How we, as apex predators, leave a larger mark on delicate ecosystem.

The removal of an apex predator that have an evolved relationship with their prey, their prey populations become unregulated and can boom. Unsustainable amounts of consumption of vegetation can lead to a loss in plant biodiversity as well as a loss of animal habitat. The increased prey numbers were then followed by overgrazing and browsing that led to a three-part trophic cascade (Eisenberg, 2010).

A comparison of a habitat when keystone predators are removed. Source: Encyclopedia Britannica

Before the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone National Park, it was observed that elk populations were pushing the limits of the carrying capacity of the habitat. Elk stayed in the park in the winter, “browsing heavily on young willow, aspen and cottonwood plants” (Farquhar, 2011). Researchers at UC Berkeley found that with decreased snow amounts and the presence of wolves, scavengers have benefited. There is a web of life that can be linked to wolf kills: beetles, ravens, eagles, magpies, coyotes and bears. With the natural recolonization of Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada Mark Hebblewhite found similar results to those of Yellowstone and an increased biodiversity, including songbirds (Eisenberg, 2010). The interconnectedness of species and the importance of each species in an ecosystem is evident when something is removed, and the system is altered.

With wolves established in their natural habitat relationships that have evolved over time are in check. Source: Earthjustice

The role which predators play is important not only to population control of their prey, but also has a great impact to nested system they live in. The current limiting factor in the range expansion of wolves is mortality caused by humans, even among legally-protected populations (Moskowitz, 2013).

Learning to live with wolves and working towards acceptance of them in our ecosystem can support their success of reestablishing in Washington. Wolves have an impact on the ecosystems they inhabit, and are considered a keystone species, but it is important to remember the impact humans have.  

We have greatly altered our landscape, and the presence or absence of animals in an ecosystem — including the return of wolves — will not repair all the damage we have done. The presence of wolves could help restore a natural equilibrium that was evolved long before our time.

Now it is our turn to support the expansion of wolves, allowing them to fit in to our new definition we have created for wilderness, one that is home to livestock and humans. Supporting wolves in the habitat they can prevail in — and learning to coexist in their ancestral home range — is one way we can begin to assist the reestablishment of Gray wolves in Washington.

Read more posts on the natural and cultural history of wolves throughout our blog.

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