One Hundred Years of Learning
By Bill Route, National Park Service
In 2016 we celebrate one hundred years of the National Park Service (NPS), an agency born in 1916 and charged with managing select areas to preserve and commemorate nationally significant natural and cultural resources. National parks play an increasingly important role in preserving native wildlife, including wolves. Like many things, the principles and practices of managing wolves in our national parks have evolved with changes in human attitudes.
The Era of Misunderstanding
Wolves have not always fared well in America’s national parks. In the 1800s and early 1900s gray wolves (Canis lupus) were shot, poisoned, and trapped as vermin. In Yellowstone, which was set aside in 1872 as our first national park, the US military worked to eliminate wolves so that the more “stately” game animals like elk could thrive. Even President Theodore Roosevelt, known for doubling the number of national parks during his presidency, called the wolf “the beast of waste and destruction”.
Following what was then the publically accepted practice; in 1926 an NPS employee shot what was believed the last wolf in Yellowstone for nearly seven decades. Extermination of wolves across the West was complete by the 1960s resulting in their disappearance from all of the western parks.
The scene was much the same in Alaska, though low human density prevented complete eradication. When renowned ecologist Adolph Murie went to Mount McKinley (now Denali) National Park to study wolves and their prey in 1939 he found that the killing of wolves by park staff was routine.
Gray wolves in the eastern states maintained a tenuous foot-hold only in extreme northern Minnesota and on Isle Royale. Wolves were killed for bounty across the upper Midwest through 1965, but the effect was dampened by the remoteness of the Quetico-Superior border country, which included portions of what became Voyageurs National Park in 1975. In 1960, the lowest ebb in the gray wolf population in the lower forty-eight states, Minnesota harbored about 300-400 wolves and Isle Royale about twenty-two.
Red wolves (Canis rufus) are a smaller cousin of the gray wolf and they once ranged across the southern United States. Like gray wolves they were hunted, trapped, and poisoned. They were declared extinct from the wild in 1980 after fourteen individuals were live-trapped from southeastern Texas and southwest Louisiana and put in to a captive breeding program.
A Time and Place for Learning
National parks have always been laboratories for research and learning about naturally functioning ecosystems. Even before Isle Royale was a national park, Adolph Murie conducted one of the first studies of moose there in the 1930s. Because wolves had not yet arrived on the island, moose were rapidly increasing and he recommended either hunting or introducing predators like wolves to reduce moose and save the island’s vegetation. Murie went on to conduct seminal research on wolves and their prey in Mount McKinley National Park from 1939 to 1941. There he concluded that wolves played an essential role in the ecosystem and his widely publicized articles helped change the conversation from wolves being all bad to wolves having an important role. This conversation increased in vigor with the work of Dr. L. David Mech who began his PhD on the wolves of Isle Royale National Park in 1958.
Mech became a world authority on wolves and was instrumental in changing human attitudes with numerous scientific and popular articles. Dr. Rolf O. Peterson continued the Isle Royale wolf-moose studies to what is now known as the longest, continuously running wildlife monitoring program in the world. Peterson, a string of graduate students, and current co-investigator John Vucetich have greatly expanded our understanding of wolf-prey dynamics and the importance of population size and connections to other wolf populations in order to maintain genetic viability.
For all these studies, national parks have provided a unique mix of wildlands with low human influence, relatively whole native communities of wildlife and plants, and often facilities, funding, staff, and an interested public to support research.
The Trail towards Restoration
It took seventy years for the National Park Service—in step with changing public opinion—to evolve its thinking and muster the political will to bring wolves back to Yellowstone in 1995. But when they did, it was with rigor, thoughtfulness, and to great success with the help of many partners. As told by wolf project leader Dr. Douglas W. Smith and co-author Gary Ferguson in their book, Decade of the Wolf, the forty-one wolves released into Yellowstone resulted in what is arguably one of the most important ecological successes of the century. Over 160,000 public comments were received by the NPS leading up to the reintroduction—more than any other similar action in American history. From this new beginning, the population has risen to over 100 wolves in the park and 500 in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, putting Yellowstone at the center of wolf recovery across the western United States. [I suggest a graph of the Yellowstone and Greater Yellowstone population over time]
As the NPS and its partners were preparing to reintroduce wolves to Yellowstone, wolves began roaming from Canada into Glacier National Park in the early 1980s. Eventually a pair denned in Glacier in 1985, which was the first resident pack of wolves since they were declared extinct from the western United States. By 1995 six packs lived in northwestern Montana—entirely from natural recolonization.
In the 1990s thirty-seven red wolves were released in to Great Smoky Mountains National Park following successful reintroductions to public and private lands in North Carolina. Public acceptance was reasonably good, unfortunately most of the wolves succumbed to starvation, disease, and parasites. By 1998 the NPS and US Fish and Wildlife Service announced that they would remove the last four red wolves from the park, ending the nine year attempt to reintroduce them. Today red wolves are among the most endangered carnivores in the United States.
The change in human attitudes towards wolves had beginnings in the 1930’s with Aldo Leopold, who is widely known as the father of modern-day wildlife management. His thinking about wolves changed the day he pondered the ecological value of a wolf he had helped shoot on a remote mountain-side in Arizona. One cannot help but think that his wisdom was imparted to his son, A. Starker Leopold, who in 1963 was principal author of Wildlife Management in the National Parks. This report became known as The Leopold Report and it recommended that park wildlife be managed as interconnected parts, and that predators and natural processes play essential roles. The NPS still looks to these principles in managing their lands.
Multiple Balancing Acts
Conserving wolves in national parks today is more complex than setting boundaries, reintroducing wolves where they are absent, and stopping people from killing them. At one extreme is Alaska, where in 1980 the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) set aside 43 million acres in ten units to be managed by the NPS. Under ANILCA there are “hard parks” with no, or limited, harvest by humans, and there are “preserves” where harvest is allowed, but with preference given to local, rural residents. So in Alaska, NPS managers get involved in setting seasons and limits for harvesting wolves.
In the lower forty-eight states the National Park Service manages parks, lakeshores, recreation areas, wild and scenic rivers, and monuments (among others). Wolves within national “parks” are legally protected from hunting and trapping. On the other hand, wildlife in most “recreation areas” and “lakeshores” are managed in cooperation with states, so that state laws often apply unless federal laws like the Endangered Species Act take precedence.
In the upper Midwest Voyageurs National Park holds a small but healthy wolf population. Two or three packs (twelve –eighteen wolves) use the interior of Voyageurs where they are insulated from human-caused mortality. About twice as many use area that straddles the boundary and are subject to illegal and incidental killing. Wolves are also known to roam through Grand Portage National Monument, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.
Wolves were absent from Isle Royale until the late 1940s when a pair made their way across Lake Superior ice from Canada. This pair and occasional immigrants from the mainland slowly increased to about fifty by 1980 and then plummeted to only two or three individuals today. Inbreeding in this isolated population has likely reduced productivity.
The NPS holds to the policy that natural processes such as this are important to preserve, even if they are unwelcome. Yet, the issue at Isle Royale is intermingled with unnatural events. The arrival of parvo-virus in 1980 by a domestic dog likely contributed to the decline of the early 1980s. The already low rate of wolf immigration is expected to decrease with fewer ice bridges forming because of a warming climate. Increased human development on the nearby mainland also alters wolf movements to and from the island.
The arguments for and against intervention by the National Park Service have been aired in scientific and popular articles with scientists and managers on both sides of the issue. The NPS is currently asking for public input and will release an Environmental Impact Statement in late 2016 for additional public review and comment. A decision on whether to bring in additional wolves is expected by December 2017.
The conservation of wolves in the national park system is storied and complex. But there is little doubt that today the National Park Service manages some of the most highly protected, longest studied, and most publically visible wolf populations in the nation.
This article appears on the back of the 2016 Wolf Awareness Week Poster.