Return of wolves coincides with decline in elk

By MERRIT GEARY and ZACH COE/Montana State News

Yellowstone National Park, 3,500 square miles of wilderness, surrounded by geysers, lush rivers, alpine forests, vast canyons and volcanic hot spots. Covering parts of Montana, and Wyoming Yellowstone has become a tourist attraction unlike any other place.

Yellowstone is not only known for its physical elements but also the abundance of animals that inhabit the land, wolves being a species that have been reintroduced to Yellowstone and surrounding areas. While dangerous in their own right, are they necessary for the ecosystem?

According to Yellowstone Nation Park’s website, in 2013 there were 61 different mammal species in Yellowstone, 500 Grizzly bears live in the Yellowstone ecosystem. There are about 13 packs of wolves which make up about 370 total for the population of wolves.

There are seven ungulate species in Yellowstone National Park-elk, mule deer, bison, moose, bighorn sheep, pronghorn and white tailed deer.

Each species is dwindling due to man-made issues and natural issues as well. The moose population, as of 2013, was about 400 while the elk population was at about 15,000 which was a significant increase from the Elk population of 2003 being 8,000. Elk are a wolf’s primary source of food in the winter, making about 92 percent of all kills.

According to the U.S National Park Service, in the winter of 1995, elk numbers were about 16,791 but as the wolf population increased from 21 to 106 the elk population dropped to 8,335.

When elk populations thrive, aspen trees begin to decline. Elk primarily feed off of blue wheat grass, in winter the grass becomes more scarce so the elk will eat the aspen tree bark. Aspen trees are vital for Yellowstone’s ecosystem due to the fact that it provides homes for birds, enrich the soil and do feed the elk in times of crisis. They do need to be monitored because growing Aspen trees is incredibly difficult.

With reintroducing wolves into the Yellowstone National Park the entirety of the ecosystem should not only improve but thrive.

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