Yellowstone Wolves May Face Challenging Times (February 2009)

Last month, Yellowstone National Park announced a 27% drop in its wolf population within the past year. There are many possible causes for the sharp decline, and while biologists suspect a combination of factors, there are still many unanswered questions. This puzzle emphasizes the importance of the ongoing, scientific wolf research funded by the Yellowstone Park Foundation.

In 1995 and 1996, thirty-one gray wolves from Canada were relocated to Yellowstone National Park to restore a native population that had been hunted to extinction in the early part of the century. In the decade that followed, the reintroduced wolves established packs, spread to all corners of the Park, and produced successful breeding pairs. 

This monumental undertaking to return a top-level carnivore to a large ecosystem has been largely touted as one of the most successful wildlife restoration efforts in history.  But the story does not end there.

While the January 2008 count totaled 171 wolves living within Yellowstone, in January 2009 biologists estimated that the number has decreased to 124 wolves.  This is the Park’s first wolf population decline in three years. 

“This looks to be the toughest year yet for our wolf population,” said Dr. Doug Smith, Yellowstone’s Wolf Project Leader.

“Some contributing causes are most likely wolves killing wolves from other packs, mange, or diseases like canine parvovirus and canine distemper, which are killing pups,” explained Smith. “But we don’t have enough information yet to complete the picture.”


Strong Public Interest in Yellowstone Wolves

wolves - aerialPrivate citizens have donated more than $2 million to the Foundation to help support the Yellowstone Wolf Project since 1996, indicating widespread public interest in the survival of wild wolves in Yellowstone. 

While the federal government provides funding for the basic monitoring of wolves in Yellowstone, it does not fund long-term studies on their impact on the ecosystem or on the wolves’ health, equipment needs such as radio collars, sufficient aerial monitoring, or the staff necessary to run the Yellowstone Wolf Project effectively on a day-to-day basis.

“We work to raise a minimum of $200,000 every year to fund around 60% of the Wolf Project’s expenses,” said Yellowstone Park Foundation President Paul Zambernardi. “The gray wolf is native to Yellowstone, and we want to fund the research needed to help ensure that this Park remains as ecologically balanced as it is today.”

Yellowstone’s wolf packs comprise the world’s most watched wolf population.  According to a 2005 survey of Yellowstone visitors* funded by the Yellowstone Park Foundation, an estimated 325,000 people per year see wolves during their visit to the Park.  Of visitors surveyed, 44% cited wolves as the species they would most like to see.  In fact, an estimated 85,000 people come to Yellowstone each summer exclusively to see wolves. 


Addressing Wildlife Diseases in Yellowstone

The Yellowstone Wildlife Health Program, also funded by the Foundation, is examining diseases that threaten not only the Park’s wolves, but also bison, trout, and other native wildlife populations.  Yellowstone wildlife biologists collaborate with leading scientists and other experts from UC Davis and Montana State University to study distemper and mange in wolves, brucellosis in elk and bison, and other potentially devastating diseases.

Zambernardi expects that the research will be crucial to Yellowstone by informing wildlife management decisions for years to come.  He also believes there are wider benefits.

“Yellowstone is one of the world’s most significant living laboratories,” said Zambernardi. “When innovative scientific research is conducted here, it tends to benefit science and wildlife conservation worldwide.”


What’s Next for Yellowstone’s wolves? 

wolf print in snowDoug Smith and his colleagues are working, in the Park’s harsh winter climate, to collect all the information they can about why the wolf population is starting to dwindle.  Some of this information is obtained by tracking with GPS radio collars, funded by Foundation donors who choose to sponsor individual wolf collars.

“We want to know if any human-introduced problems are affecting wolves. However, it may just be that the reintroduced population has fully recovered, and is now experiencing a natural fluctuation that we see in most other native wildlife species,” explained Smith.

“We’re working to verify causes of death and analyze blood samples we obtained from wolves that we captured, briefly, for collaring. Hopefully these activities will allow us to see the broader picture of the status of Yellowstone’s wolves.”

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