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A wolf

Watching wolves

Thanks to an anonymous gift, groundbreaking Yellowstone studies will go on

By Mary Hoff

From M, spring 2006

It's not every day biologists get to watch an ecosystem over a long time period. But during the past 10 years, graduate students in the College of Natural Resources have had just such an opportunity as they've studied the restoration of the gray wolf to Yellowstone National Park. Now, a Colorado philanthropist is making it possible to continue this important work with a $1.4 million contribution to the University of Minnesota and the Yellowstone Park Foundation.

Wolf packs disappeared from Yellowstone in the late 1920s, largely due to government extermination programs. Like waves radiating from a pebble dropped in a pond, change rippled through the park's flora and fauna. Elk and other herbivores thrived. Vegetation patterns changed. When the federal government released 14 Canadian wolves into Yellowstone in 1995, it created a superb opportunity to explore how an ecosystem adapts to rapid change. Like theatergoers at the world premier of a play, researchers watched the drama unfold.

"We had the basic background on the whole genesis of a new population," says U.S. Geological Survey senior scientist and College of Natural Resources adjunct professor L. David Mech, who led studies of the restoration. "Just a wealth of excellent information was obtained."

Research Targets Bears

What's eating elk calves at Yellowstone National Park? The answer is important both to hunters concerned about declining elk populations and to biologists studying the wolf reintroduction.

To find out, grad student Shannon Barber-Meyer and colleagues radio-tagged and tracked the fate of 51 calves on Yellowstone's northern range. They found that bears, not wolves, accounted for the bulk of summer predation.

"It is surprising that in the presence of bears and wolves, the wolves were taking such a small part," she said. "This study gives credence to people who say, 'Let's bring back all the components of an ecosystem.'"

Ph.D. student Shannon Barber-Meyer, for instance, spent three years studying elk calf mortality in Yellowstone. She found that bears, not wolves, account for the bulk of summer predation on elk calves.

"It's really important to help quell some of the criticism surrounding the wolf restoration," she says.

Mech and students were facing the end of the research road when much of the federal support ended last October. Then an anonymous benefactor heard Mech speak at a wolf symposium and pledged $140,000 per year for 10 years to keep things going.

Each year the Yellowstone Park Foundation will receive $100,000. Another $40,000 per year, plus a cost-of-living increase, will support U of M graduate students working with Mech.

"Being aware of the vital importance of the long-term research, I wanted the excellent work in Yellowstone to continue into the next decade," the donor says. "As an avid supporter of student involvement, I also wanted to ensure graduate-level participation in this great project."

The gift will be invaluable, Mech says, in supporting studies of things like long-term fluctuations in wolf numbers, predator-prey interactions, and the flow of genes through the population. "This kind of information becomes really powerful if you follow it for 20 or 30 years," he said.

Mech does not expect to see major changes in Yellowstone due to the anticipated removal of the northern Rocky Mountain population of gray wolf from the federal list of threatened and endangered species in the next few years. But he says the funds will help document the impacts of other events, such as the loss last winter of a third of the park's wolves from what scientists suspect was a virus carried by pet dogs.

"The research is not necessarily directed at trying to change anything," Mech says. "Yellowstone, being a national park, actually prevents a lot of management activities. But it does make an excellent laboratory in which to learn things that could be applied to other populations."