Can wolves help save U.S. national parks?

Research suggests that reintroducing small, managed populations of wolves to U.S. national parks can help restore damaged ecosystems.

These areas, says Daniel Licht of the U.S. National Park Service, have been environmentally impacted by population growth of hoofed mammals (ungulates), which have prospered in the absence of “top-level” natural predators.

The introduction of wolves would reduce ungulate populations, leading to greater plant biomass and diversity.

Yellowstone National Park has the highest concentration of large and small mammals in the lower 48. It’s now the premier place to see wolves from the roadside, according to wildlife biologist Doug Smith, head of the Yellowstone Wolf Project.

Thirty-one gray wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone from 1995 to 1996. By 2008, there were an estimated 400 wolves in the region. The controversial animals feed primarily upon elk, but are loathed by ranchers in neighboring regions, because they are seen as a threat to livestock.

Researchers say reintroduced wolf populations could possibly be controlled by surgery or contraception (don’t you need opposable thumbs to put on a condom?) and all animals could be tagged and tracked by GPS to monitor and prevent predation on domestic species. Physical and virtual barriers such as electric fencing are also an option.

The Yellowstone wolves have provided recreational and economic benefits. In 2005, the park experienced an increase in visitors, and expanded ecotourism spending by $35 million, because the wolves are so popular with tourists.

The Lamar Valley is the best place to view wolves in Yellowstone. Another hot spot outside the park is Jackson Hole, Wyoming’s, National Elk Refuge, and (if you want to cheat) Yellowstone Bear World, in Rexburg, Idaho.

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