For naturalists and wildlife aficionados, a month spent wolf-watching in Yellowstone probably sounds like a dream come true. But what if it meant standing exposed in the bone-chilling cold for hours, skiing with a heavy pack for miles each day, and staring out at the blank-white expanse that is the Yellowstone landscape in winter? All to catch a sighting or two of wolves, or signs of their presence.
For about 30 days each winter – from mid-November until mid-December and again during March – a dozen volunteers do just that in the name of science.
Started in 1995, shortly after wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone, the wolf tracking focuses on understanding the predatory behavior of wolves – what they hunt, and why – a rancorous topic in the Rocky Mountain West.
“The thing that makes [wolves] really controversial is that they are predators. Unfortunately, they hunt the same things we hunt,” says Yellowstone Wolf Project leader Doug Smith, who has worked on the study since its inception. Much of the resistance to wolf reintroduction and their continued presence in the region comes from concerns that wolves eat too many elk and don’t leave enough for human hunters. The predation study seeks to address this concern by uncovering the reality of both the rate at which wolves kill elk and other prey, and reasons they select certain prey.
Since wolf sightings are much more likely in the colder months, and because it offers better insight into predator-prey behavior in adverse conditions, the study is conducted at the beginning and end of each winter. “We wanted to bracket the winter period, since prey vulnerability increases throughout the season,” Smith says.
Due to a tight budget, Smith couldn’t afford to hire enough seasonal staff needed to keep the project going through the winter, so he put out a request for volunteers and was happily surprised to find himself inundated with applicants.
“There are a lot of people interested in wolf biology, but not a lot of positions available,” says 22-year-old volunteer Emily Perry, a recent graduate from Colorado College who majored in biology.
Volunteers are generally split up into small groups of two to three people and assigned a specific wolf pack to track every day from dawn to dusk. The teams often travel ten or more miles a day through high snow, trailing the wolves and searching for the remains of the packs’ prey. Afterward, they return to their quarters, usually rustic ranger stations void of cable or Internet access, to complete their records of the day’s observations. “If there is one thing I learned, it’s that you can’t set your watch by a wolf,” says Perry, who is working on the project for the first time.
While most of the volunteers are recent college graduates, Smith has also hired retirees and people without scientific backgrounds. What volunteers might lack in a related degree, they compensate for with a willingness to work hard. Twenty-seven year-old Brendan Oates, who has a degree in international affairs, says he was always an outdoors enthusiast. In recent years, he has worked a slew of different wildlife technician positions before coming to the project last November. “I know this is a cliché, but for me, wolves have always been an icon of wilderness,” he says. “As a keystone species, they belong where evolution intended them to flourish.”
Over the years the study has revealed that wolves tend to pick out the weakest or youngest of a herd to prey on. Though they occasionally hunt bull elk (the favored target of human hunters), this tends to happen more frequently toward the end of winter, when the weather has taken its toll on the bull’s stamina. The 2011 Yellowstone winter was especially harsh, with the heaviest snowfall in decades, which has been beneficial to wolves because it offered them an array of weakened prey.
Oates says that worries about wolves killing all the elk overlook the complex factors that play into population fluctuations in prey base, like disease and climate. In recent years, both wolves and elk populations have dwindled, meaning the two species are seemingly coming into equilibrium with each other.
“Nature is highly variable and complex, whether we choose understand it or not,” Oates says. “Scapegoating an animal with an undeserved reputation is taking the easy way out.”
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