Editor’s note: This is part of a series on watching wolves and other wildlife in Yellowstone National Park with Belton resident Waldo Montgomery.
You’re not likely to sit through three traffic lights without moving in Montana, as I did in Austin on a side track during my way to Yellowstone.
In Montana and Wyoming, things like bison, bears and elk can all bring traffic to a halt — when the animals use the cleared path to avoid piled-up snow or when enthusiastic “hunters” stop to take photos or just watch the wildlife. The biblical story of the donkey which would not advance into an armed angel could certainly be applied to this “mama bear” world we still live in. Are there are too many whiners out there for us to live with God’s nature?
Good folks have different views. Red-tape rules make it hard for ranchers to recover from livestock losses, a long-time Montana resident assured me on the plane from Austin to Denver. She was also certain wolves attacked — not just chased off — ranchers when they approached a kill, even though documented deaths of humans from wolf attacks are practically nonexistent.
It’s hard to find out where the truth lies. The solution is not simple.
Belton resident Waldo Montgomery takes up the comments on chronic wasting disease, which wolves definitely deal with. Wolves spot sick animals and target them, far faster and more efficiently than humans can.
Will it take a disease spreading to cattle and perhaps humans for attitudes to change?
Of natural predators to take care of overpopulation of bison, elk and deer, wolves are definitely the safest for humans. In fact, bison have been the most dangerous animal to humans, when it comes to attacks, at Yellowstone National Park.
Wolves were brought back to Yellowstone because the elk were getting into boom-bust cycles caused by a lack of predators and overgrazing. Disease spread quickly among concentrated animals.
Wolves usually hunt weakened animals who are easier to kill, not the big-racked stags that trophy hunters seek. However, in Wyoming and Montana killing elk for food is a common thing.
And domestic livestock, once wolves do find them to be hunting targets, are much easier prey. As chronicled in “American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West,” a pack in Idaho had to be, reluctantly, wiped out because all efforts to keep them away from domestic animals failed.
The return of the predators have brought nature back into balance.
Videos clearly show the improvement of the river ecology that wolves and grizzlies have helped to bring. Elk can no longer just stay close to water and eat to the point it brings erosion. Surprisingly to some, other species have flourished as the wolves brought nature back to balance.
I observed a flock of ravens, plus six eagles, feasting off carcass remains from wolf kills. A long-time wolf observer said he’d never seen more than three eagles together without a fight, but in this case the food outweighed the fight in the six eagles taking in part of a bison while the wolves rested.
A report in www.nationalparkstraveler.org said Yellowstone National Park elk are so conditioned to their winter and summer ranges that the park’s wolves don’t force them to go elsewhere.
“They will move about within their home range to avoid disturbance, whether it’s humans or predators, but they’re reluctant to relocate their winter range,” Dr. Dan MacNulty, an associate professor of wildland resources at Utah State University, said in the study.
“In 1988, after those fires and the severe winter, we did actually have very good evidence from radio-collared animals of them abandoning their winter ranges and moving downstream, where conditions were more favorable,” he added. “So they are flexible, but their preference is to remain in a familiar area.”
Beyond the natural balance, there’s the economic factor. Two women from Oklahoma on the plane to Bozeman go every May to see the grizzly cubs. There’s plenty more like them.
The National Park website said Yellowstone tourism provided more than $600 million in economic impact in each of the last three years. While natural features like geysers, the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone and Mammoth Springs bring in some, the wildlife areas seemed just as popular during my trips there. People talked a lot more about the animals they saw than the natural features.
Melba Coleman with OpticsYellowstone, which rents out spotting scopes in Gardiner, Mont., is sold out every spring, with some people renting for the next year when they finish each visit.
Targets fight back
Unlike our trophy hunters who use scopes and long-distance projectiles, wolves operate under close quarters where their targets fight back. One bad hunt can end a wolf’s life as well as the prey.
One documentary showed even a baby bison able to fend off an inexperienced wolf long enough for the big bad bison mama to come to the cavalry-like rescue. Because of the possibility of injuries, wary wolves seek out the easier targets.
Should they get injured, wolves operate on a social structure closer to humans than perhaps any other animal. They care for their injured, sick and young together.
While their cousins, dogs, provide companionship and other services for their human “masters,” wolves remain independent. They weren’t averse to cooperation with Native American tribes, according to oral history. But men’s media has been unfavorable to wolves over the years, although wolf opponents now claim a bias to the stories about the predators.
The issue of the “Mexican” wolf is just as heated in some corners as other immigrant issues.
Then there’s the “only good wolf is a dead wolf” that hits home to Native Americans and any others who faced such “final solutions.”
For the opposite of the “big bad wolf” story, read The Jungle Book (or watch the movies), where a child is raised by a pack of wolves.
Of recent vintage is the “Game of Thrones” Starks, with their family sigil being the wolf, which comes to their aid in the most dire situations.
But does the North American wolf have a ghost of a chance?
Perhaps we can learn to live together, even in imperfect harmony.
Will we continue to chronically waste some of our precious natural resources?
How long must we go for the balance to be returned? And when will we learn how best to manage this world we live in?
Next: The Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center