A special thanks to Rocky Mountain Wolf Project advisor, Rob Edward, for helping to inform this article. Rob Edward is a strategic advisor to the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project, an all-volunteer organization with a vision to help facilitate coexistence between wolves and humans. Rob has been working to foment wolf restoring in Colorado since 1994.
Wolves are keystone species because they play a central role in the health and function of their ecosystems. Without them, there are notable changes in biodiversity, hydrology, and overall ecosystem productivity.
For tens of thousands of years, wolves have occupied North American grasslands, woodlands, deserts, forests, and tundra. “Anywhere there were large ungulates,” reports Rocky Mountain Wolf Project advisor Rob Edward, “there were wolves.” As social apex predators, wolves have played an essential role in maintaining ecological balance across the continent. Their presence has directly influenced the course of waterways, the vitality of vegetation, and the
behaviors and abundance of certain wildlife. Honored by many Indigenous nations as sacred guides, wolves are keepers of ecological equilibrium, a true keystone species for Colorado and the continent at large.
Why are Wolves Keystone Species?
1) They Regulate Overgrazing: Hunting in family units, wolves are unique carnivores because they confront their prey head on, running directly through herds of ungulates in search of the weakest link. While also bringing nourishment to the pack, this hunting strategy encourages elk and deer to move around the landscape more often, protecting areas from overgrazing. This, in turn, allows for vegetation and soil to recover between browsing events. In this way, the hunting behaviors of wolves drives sustainable use of land by herbivores.
2) Balance the Food Chain: Through natural predation, wolves help foment genetic health of ungulate populations. Since wolves target the vulnerable, sick, or weak, the carnivores help to keep a herd’s overall vitality strong. Keeping ungulate populations in check is important as it encourages other species to thrive, such as plants and insects. Additionally, the carcasses from a wolf pack’s kill supports the nutritional needs of scavengers, like eagles, bears, coyotes, and ravens.
3) They Improve Riparian Habitats: Keeping ungulate populations in check is important because, if overpopulated, they can destroy an ecosystem. For example, too many elk in a riparian area can lead to overconsumption of stabilizing trees like willow, cottonwood, and aspens. These trees help to protect against erosion and help to maintain the productivity and course of a waterway.
4) Increase Biodiversity: Improved riparian conditions have a rippling effect on many other species, notably beaver (another important keystone species). A healthy riparian habitat encourages beavers to inhabit the area and build dams from willow and aspen branches, which eventually leads to the slowing and deepening of waterways. These conditions are ideal for many fish species. Songbirds, as well as other wildlife, also depend on healthy riparian habitats for hydration, shelter, and shade. Wolves enrich the vitality of any region that they inhabit. From supporting birds and beavers, to insects and grasses, wolves are intricately linked to the productivity and biodiversity of North American ecology at large.
“A Campaign of Genocide”
Despite the many ways that wolves enrich our landscape, a violent past of excessive and inhumane hunting, trapping, and poisoning throughout the 1900s drastically reduced wolf populations across the continent. When European Americans first settled in the West, they brought with them their livestock. Clearing pasture and removing bison from the great plains were first steps to bringing their ranches to fruition. They also excessively hunted elk and deer to satisfy the growing demands of the meat market in the east coast. Between land conversions and drastic reductions in ungulate populations, wolves quickly lost both their food source, and much of their native prairie habitat. Ranchers complained that wolves were preying on their livestock, causing a dramatic uproar that began what Edward calls “a campaign of genocide” against wolves.
By 1914, the federal government had established a special branch, dubbed the U.S. Biological Survey, committed to eradicating wolves across the US. Millions of dollars went to training young men to track, attract, and kill wolves and their pups. Edward shares that poison, traps, direct shootings, and even beating pups to death were all methods used. These massacres nearly wiped-out wolves from the North American continent. In many states across the US, not a single wolf remained. By 1945, wolves were extinct in Colorado.
A few fragmented populations survived the brutal period in Canada. As big game recovered and the war against wolves waned in the latter half of the 1900s, some packs migrated south into Michigan, and parts of Minnesota and Wisconsin. Today, wolf populations have partially recovered in the Northern Rocky Mountains, with steady populations in Oregon, Washington, and Northern California.
The campaign to kill wolves, however, is not over. Certain groups continue to circulate inaccurate information that wolves are bad for the cattle industry, dangerous to livestock, and that they deplete big game populations. As a result, it is legal and encouraged to hunt wolves in several US states including Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. Idaho recently passed a bill to reduce their wolf population by 90%, meaning the slaughter of up to 1,300 wolves. Lawmakers are permitting aggressive hunting techniques such as the use of night vision goggles for late night hunting, as well as tracking and killing them with the assistance of motorized vehicles. This means that hunters can li