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: “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: “The start of each day is pretty early. It’s before the sun comes up. Winter study lasts 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.
Erin Albers: “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: “Yeah Doug, We can definitely try snowshoeing up there 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 our 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.
Doug Smith: “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.
Yellowstone’s wolves are back. And biologist Doug Smith is hunting them with a camera. Seventy years ago, hunters silenced the last of Yellowstone National Park’s original wolves. Today their howls echo, once again, through the valleys, as new wolves regain their voice in the park.
Doug Smith: “How successful has wolf restoration been to Yellowstone? I think the best way to think about it is that when we did this, no-one knew what was going to happen. There’s so much wolf hatred that we thought all the wolves would be shot and killed. So, no-one knew. I remember a time when I was wondering what was going to happen. And one day I heard the wolves howling in Lamar and that sound to me was the sound of success.”
Success is starting to sound a little different. Wolf watchers, hundreds of thousands of them, have transformed Yellowstone’s once quiet Northern Range into a wolf-watching metropolis.
Doug: “Yellowstone now, has become the best place in the world to view wolves. Not just the United States but the world.”
“We started the wolf-watching when the packs were first reintroduced in 1995. We just got glimpses of them in ’95 and ’96. But then starting in ’97 we became more serious wolf-watchers, and we’re really hooked.
“This year it will be about 7 years that we’ve been out watching wolves. “
“At this point I come about once a month and I’m here for the whole summer now. “
“Well I’ve been coming out every day for almost 5 years now. That started on June 11, 2000 and on June 11, 2005 it will be every day for exactly 5 years.”
“You just can’t wait. You read about it on the Internet at home. You just think, ‘I need more’. Laughs, What are they doing today?”
“We’ll be back in September and then again during the winter.” “This will be a lifetime deal for us, for sure.
Some people warn that the constant presence of people is making wolves lose their natural fear of humans.
Doug: “You can’t have the most visible group of wolves in the world and not have some people-problems. I mean, with some natural resources, certainly pristine ones, everybody deals with the issue of loving it to death. On the Northern Range all the wolves are exposed to people, especially the Druid Peak Pack. They’re marinated in people. And so we’ve really had to actively manage the people. The first couple years we had a hard time. And I didn’t know what to do ‘cause I didn’t think the wolves would be that visible. And I didn’t think that this many people would come to see them, and persevere to see them, and I didn’t think the tour guides would come. So we do walk a tightrope quite often trying to protect the wolves, to maintain their wildness and at the same time provide for visitor enjoyment.”
“How close did she get, I didn’t see.”
“She was right next to them.”
If wolves become too comfortable around people, they might become bold and hurt someone. If that happens, wolves might face the firing line once more.
It’s up to Doug to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Doug: “Now that wolves are a phenomenon here and people come to see them. That’s going to be another big part of my role and keeping the most loved wolf population in the world safe…free…wolves can be wolves, because they’re getting hemmed in by people. There isn’t enough room, or enough wolves, to go around. So we, at the same time, have to promote and restrict.”
Wolves aren’t the only animals to get a little too comfortable around people. With over 3 million visitors to the park every year, a lot of animals have become unafraid of humans, with potentially dangerous consequences.
But wolves are different. With passions so high about the wolves, the animals ride a very fine line between love and hate. And it’s Doug’s job to make sure that balance stays in the wolves favor. He turns to scientific research to protect both wolves and people. Doug routinely boards a small plane and tracks the wolves from overhead, via their radio collars, to make sure they are staying safe and out of trouble.
Doug: “Radio collaring may be one of the most important tools to modern day wildlife biologists. It may be the single most important technique for studying wolves.”
“And unless we know something about wolves, the controversy is going to grow. But if we know what wolves are really like, and what they do, how they behave, what they eat, what they don’t eat, how much they eat, all that comes from radio collars. This is how it’s done, this is our bread and butter, radio tracking from a super cub, looking down on the wolves. A lot of country, big country, to cover. You can’t do it on foot. You can’t do it on horseback. You can’t do it out of a vehicle. You’ve got to do it like this. We’d like to fly more but they cut us back. But this is how we do it. OK, we’ve got the Agate Creek Pack. We’ve got some adults and pups here….four adults and five pups now…OK good enough.”
From the air Doug can not only spot the wolves but he can sometimes even spot their den. Back on ground, he and Deb Guernsey, a member of the Yellowstone Wolf Project, set out to find one of the dens that Doug has seen from the air.
Doug: “I think this is it. But we can ultimately compare this against the photos. But the reason I think it’s it is because…look at how much more dirt is thrown up.”
Doug records the size, depth, and location of each of the dens that he finds.
Doug: “35 centimeters tall, by 37 centimeters wide.”
The information provides valuable clues as to why some wolves might be getting so tolerant of people. If adult wolves are used to people enough to dig their dens next to the road, then their pups see people from the first time they emerge from the den. By documenting the movements of the wolves, Doug hopes to give future scientists the background information that they need in case they have to start managing wolves more aggressively. While the ultimate fate of the species is unknown, one thing is a given, the new wolf hunters are here to stay.
Doug: I think people are fascinated by wolves because people don’t really have direct contact with nature anymore. We don’t have touch with wild things. Wolves may be the defining feature of wildness and further, they’re something we can’t have. Wolves won’t succumb to our way of life and as humans, we want everything. Our appetites are insatiable. And so it’s that, not letting us have it, is what makes wolves loved and hated.
Some groups of Shoshone Indians, who adapted to a mountain existence, chose not to acquire the horse. These included the Sheep Eaters, or Tukudika, who used dogs to transport food, hides, and other provisions. The Sheep Eaters lived in many locations in Yellowstone.