…and Wolves Oh My!

I saw this video posted to a friends Facebook the other day. It’s a lovely short story about the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park. Wolves are considered an endangered species in the United States mainland, except for the state of Minnesota where they are listed as “threatened”.

What happened to the Wolves in the first place?

As America expanded westward and established farms and towns a need and desire to eliminate wolves began. Wolves were not only a threat to humans but to their livestock and goods. Programs toward predator eradication which involved bounty programs and widespread poisoning lead to the decimation of nearly all gray wolves in the United States and southern Canada.  One method of extermination involved shooting bison and poisoning the carcasses; which were then eaten by the wolves. By the end of the 19th century the wolf had become all but lost.

Return of the Wolf

In 1995 gray wolves were transplanted to the Yellowstone National Park as part of an experimental program to bolster the wolf population in hopes of getting the animal off of the endangered list. In 1997 District Judge Bill Downes ruled that 66 transplanted wolves must be expelled from the park, citing violation of the Endangered Species Act of 1973. He stated that the act did not cover experimental animals. However, the decision was overruled by the 9th circuit court and the wolves were allowed to stay.

Discussion

While wolves can be problematic to those people who live around them, they are vital predators in the hierarchy of the ecosystem they inhabit. Normally Wolves out-compete and kill coyote, yet because their numbers have been so decimated coyote have now become very populous and as a result are permitted to be hunted year round. Interestingly enough, some coyote have a very small (about 5%) of wolf DNA. This is a result of interspecies mating between wolves and coyotes at what is postulated to be the early 1900’s (around the same time that wolves began to go extinct). These relatively unknown and mysterious hybrids are known as Coywolves. They are bigger than coyote but smaller than wolves with wolf-like characteristics in the face, fur, and size of the feet. They are not a 50:50 mix as you might think (unlike mules); the offspring of wolves and coyotes are viable and can themselves reproduce.  The reason why wolves have mated with coyotes  and might still do so is  due to the lack of other wolves during recolonization(introduction back into a region) or during migration. The problem with this may be the loss of distinct species of coyote and wolves. It is also indicative of a loss of genetic variation within the wolf population itself, as smaller and smaller pools are available for mating. The reintroduction of wolves can help solve this issue.

The wolf had been eradicated  in Great Britain, Central Europe, and Japan, even before its erasure from the American landscape. The United States has seen the loss of the Gray wolf, the Red wolf, and the Mexican wolf. Currently the wolf flourishes naturally in Canada and Alaska.

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