Generation W: The Generation of the Wolf
Kids, today, rule their world.
And it’s a new world, unlike anything that’s come before.
A world where science has replaced many mysteries.
A smaller world, where the most feared and exotic creatures are right at kids’ fingertips.
A visual world, where they can see what others could only read about before.
And a savvy world, where they can see it right in front of them – with a mouse click.
Is it any wonder, then, that world outside is ruled by youngsters as well.
There’s a new generation in Yellowstone. Wolves were first reintroduced from Canada in 1995, but not a single one of the original wolves is still alive in the park. Every wolf in Yellowstone today was born here, and this new generation is making its own rules.
Likewise, there’s a new generation of people in Yellowstone. And for them, the story of the wolf reintroduction is old news. Many adults remember the return of the wolf – the controversy, the tribulations and the eventual success. But none of these kids do. In their lives, Yellowstone has always had wolves. And what the wolves are teaching us is transforming human understanding of how the natural world works. Call this Generation W - The Generation of the Wolf.
The Yellowstone most adults knew and loved as they grew up wasn’t a natural ecosystem as it evolved. It was missing one crucial element – one of its top predators – and that absence rippled across the ecosystem, affecting animals, plants, even the landscape itself.
Doug Smith, Yellowstone Wolf Biologist: “They have restored this predatory influence on the animals that live here. And that has been something that’s eons old. And so we really can’t have naturalness without that. Yellowstone is a different place with wolves than it was before without them.”
The return of the wolf presented an opportunity the likes of which scientists had never seen before. A rare glimpse into how ecosystems recover, how balance is achieved, how animals interact with each other and the rest of the environment.
To get a better a better understanding of how wolves are changing Yellowstone, Doug Smith is working with a new generation of scientists. He heads a small army of field biologists, many of whom are students or volunteers, to monitor the wolf packs and to record what they are seeing. Each team is assigned to a different wolf pack.
Erin Albers, Yellowstone Wolf Project Biological Technician: “The start of each day is pretty early. It’s before the sun comes up. Winter study last for thirty days – it’s an intensive study. Particularly during March you have - the days keep getting longer so 12-13 hours in the field every day for six days is kind of a lot.
“We’re assigned to a particular pack and so our priority is to locate that pack. So, we’ll be checking signals along the way and if everything goes right, we’ll have them in sight as soon as it’s light enough.”
Scientists try to collar at least one wolf in each pack. By following a radio signal that the collar transmits, the field crews hope to locate the pack.
“It gets a little complicated because signals will bounce off of wall faces so you kind of have to read the landscape but the primary gist of it is that wherever it’s coming the loudest is where they’ll probably be.”
While the crews work from the ground, they have help from the air. Doug Smith uses telemetry equipment mounted on a small plane to help pinpoint the location of the wolves and to record their behavior. By using the plane, the team saves valuable time and locates wolves that are far enough away from park roads to be out of reach of the ground crews.
Doug Smith (on radio from plane): “3 Alpha Agate, 3 Alpha Sixty”
Erin: “Go ahead Doug”
Doug: Okay Erin, they’re up on the first big hill above Antelope Basin, right below Mount Washburn. I think your only shot is to ski up to where people watched the pups this summer in that rendezvous.
Erin: “We can definitely snowshoe up that side first.”
Doug: “Okay copy that. Three Alpha Sixty.”
Erin: “All right. Three Alpha Agate clear.”
The wolf crews don’t just focus on the wolves. They’re working to understand the relationship between wolves and all of the other species in the ecosystem, particularly one very close relationship with their main prey – elk.
The crew takes general notes on the animals’ size and records a GPS location for the kill. They also take a bone marrow sample to study the animal’s health when it died.
Erin Albers: “Most of the kills that we go to that are wolf kills, the marrow is usually pretty poor. Healthy marrow will be the consistency of peanut butter. And not great marrow will be but it looked like today – very gelatinous, jelly-like, you can almost basically pour it out of the femur. So the bone marrow is a good indication that it was a pretty hard winter for her.
“She was pretty old. Her teeth were worn down a little bit. We’ve seen that wolves will take older individuals, especially cows. So they’re not the prime animals in the population.”
Biologists had definitely expected the wolves to make elk a main part of their diet, and they predicted that wolves would target weaker members of the elk herd such as older elk and calves. In this way, they are reshaping the Yellowstone’s elk population in ways that are playing out right before out eyes.
But this new generation of wolves also had some surprises up their sleeves.
Doug Smith: “Now that they’ve re-colonized this completely, there are some very new things that have never been seen before that we’re learning about wolves. And one of them is, in the past, the amount of competition between wolf packs. We think because the density of wolves in the northern portion of Yellowstone is so high, that this inter-pack fighting is causing the population to decline a little bit. And so that has really never been well documented anywhere else.”
Scientists were also surprised to see wolves preying on bison – animals that can easily weigh twenty times as much as an individual wolf.
“Bison stand there in kind of a pugnacious way and dare the wolves to take them on. And they just sit there and stare at you and even charge you. So when the wolves kill a bison it’s a huge ordeal. It’s a big battle. And it can last all day.
“Grizzly bears are interesting because there just aren’t many places, at least at this latitude, where wolves and grizzly bears interact. Yellowstone’s one of the few places. And like the bison, bears are bigger than wolves. But they’re not as quick. So that pretty much defines the interaction between bears and wolves. And so they have this game of chess. The wolves are much better at getting meat. And the bears, who eat mostly vegetation, want to take the meat from the wolves. So they tend just to walk in and push the wolves around. But the wolves, they kind of hover around the bears, acting like a mosquito, pulling back quickly because they know the bears are not as quick as they do, to just try and harass the bears out of a bite of food. I’ve seen this many times, and it’s just a fascinating dance to watch.”
What we’ve seen with bears and bison is just the beginning in a long list of new things we’ve learned about wolves. Each year, biologists are getting a closer look at how Generation W – the generation of the wolf – is reshaping our world.
In Yellowstone, we can learn a lot from our youngsters. Perhaps because they don’t know what it was like before, they’re looking to the future, not the past.
Exactly what that future will look like is anyone’s guess.
But you can bet that this generation of wolves, like our youth, will make it unlike anything we’ve seen before.