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The rocky history of the grey wolf

I went hiking with wolves up the rocky sides of Colorado this spring break—partly because of how epic my “Two Truths and One Lie” game would be, but also because it turns out wolves are really, really cool.

After I bombarded the volunteers with a hundred questions to estimate the likelihood of one of the wolves being overcome by their nature and turning me into their next meal, I learned a lot about wolves.

Just like their habitat, the wolves have a rocky history—specifically, the grey wolf. Long ago, there were almost half a million wild grey wolves roaming America. But there were so many at the time, they were considered to be destructive pests, even by ole Theodore Roosevelt who was known for his environmental activism.

So, more than a hundred years ago, the U.S. government placed a bounty on the wolves. By 1960, grey wolves had been nearly driven to the brink of extinction. And by 1974, they were the newest addition to the Endangered Species List, and America began to welcome their slow rehabitation.

Beginning with the Magic Pack, the first noted grey wolf pack to cross over into America, they slowly regained their place in the woods, growing from 300 to more than 4,000 in the last 30 years.

Now, wolves are even being domesticated—which isn’t necessarily a good thing, according to Colorado Wolf Adventures, which offers packages for people who want to take a hike and learn all about wolves to fund their survival. The organization owns and takes care of five wolves, which are practically giant dogs at this point. All the wolves were rescued from hostile, domesticated environments where people thought they could raise them like dogs too, but soon learned they were never intended to be anything other than wild creatures.

These wild animals would never hurt people offensively, but their place in the ecosystem is prominent. And it makes one wonder—what happened to the ecosystems during the sudden wolf hiatus? In what ways were the environments affected by the roller coaster of wolf population, a keystone species?

One way to measure this is by monitoring their prey’s behavior. Wolves prey on elk, and the sudden decline in wolf population changed the way the elk behaved. Typically nomadic, the elk became much more comfortable without their biggest predator around and began to stay in one place longer, eating vegetation in large spots all at once.

This caused the populations of Aspen trees, Cottonwood trees and Riverside Willows to decline. Many beavers and songbirds depend on Riverside Willows, so this affected their populations as well.

Since the reintroduction of wolves, the Yellowstone park has been able to see a large increase in these trees and animal species again.

So, if wolves taught us anything, it’s that when we put a bounty on a keystone species, we’re affecting a lot more than just that species. There’s a whole world to consider.

With gray wolves back and at it, you may encounter one someday. If you do, remember: they don’t attack people; just maintain eye contact and back away slowly. I don’t know who needs to hear that one, but you’re welcome.