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The Return Of Wolves Improved Life For Every Animal In Yellowstone

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Does it seem strange that the best thing to ever happen to the elks at Yellowstone was a pack of hungry wolves? It's true, though, and the health of the elks—and the entire animal population, for that matter—is only a small part of the picture. Ever since rangers reintroduced wolves to Yellowstone in 1995, the park has changed in ways that very few predicted.

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The Butterfly—Er, Wolf Effect

In January, 1995, a truck carrying eight grey wolves drove into Yellowstone. That little family, which came from Jasper National Park in Alberta, was a sign of evolving views about what exactly made an ecosystem healthy. See, back in the late 1800s, the U.S. government sent geologist Ferdinand Hayden on an expedition into the area that would become the park. But back then, westerners had a distinctly unsympathetic view towards wolves. So the expedition did some pretty substantial damage to the wolf population, and as the years went by, the wolf population only dwindled more and more. By 1920, Yellowstone had no more wolves left, and the people responsible rejoiced. Finally, the elk and the other grazers could flourish! That was the plan, anyway.

And actually, that is what happened—for a little while, at least. Without wolves to keep them in check, the elk population exploded. Unfortunately, there are only so many elk the park can maintain. They decimated the bark and leaves of aspen and willow trees, leaving the poor ungulates to rely on young shrubs and sprouts instead, thereby cutting down those trees before they could reach full size. Without those trees, the beavers suffered, and their population began to fall as well. Without the beavers, the landscape itself transformed as the lack of dams changed the shape of the rivers. Furthermore, without the leftovers that the wolves left behind, scavengers such as eagles, coyotes, and wolverines languished as well. And on top of it all, the elk started to suffer. After all, an unhealthy ecosystem isn't kind to any of its members.

The Wolves Bounce Back

So after two decades, how did just eight wolves undo all that damage? Pretty effectively, as a matter of fact. Today, the park is home to roughly 100 wolves, divided into about 10 different packs. Because the wolves hunted the elk and drove them from the growing copses of trees, the aspen and willow began to return. Gradually, the ecosystem returned to a state of equilibrium.

But it wasn't all a walk in the park. Not everyone has been on board with the wolves' return, least of all the ranchers who live in the area surrounding Yellowstone. December, 2012, saw perhaps the biggest setback the wolves have faced since returning, when the wolf known as "06 Female" was shot and killed outside of the park by an unknown hunter. The wolf was the dominant member of her pack, and was beloved by rangers and tourists alike for her incredible intelligence and powerful build. Her story was immortalized in the National Geographic documentary "She Wolf," but many of the park's employees still get emotional when talking about her. Still, the overall story has been one of triumph and success, and it has given us a greater understanding of exactly how delicate the balance of nature is.

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