Andy Ostmeyer: The collapse of the red wolf comes as we realize the importance of top predators in natural communities | News


Every time I talk to Regina Mossotti, she reminds me that the red wolf is an American original.

“It’s the only large carnivore species uniquely native to the United States,” she told me again recently. “It’s THE American wolf.”

The once wilder former resident of the Ozarks is also the most endangered canid and one of the most endangered mammals on the planet.

“Without substantial intervention, complete loss of the (wild population) will likely occur in as little as eight years, the US Fish and Wildlife Service concluded in a report this spring.

Only about 40 red wolves survive in the wild today, all in eastern North Carolina. That’s down from 150 in that region a decade ago, according to Mossotti, director of animal care and conservation at the Endangered Wolf Center in Eureka, outside of St. Louis.

The irony – the tragedy – is that the disappearance of the red wolf in the wild is juxtaposed with a barrage of science over the past two decades that has made a compelling, consistent and common-sense case for the need to protect and restore apex predators in nature, as they play a crucial role in maintaining the integrity and balance of natural communities. These studies have also shown that they are the guardians of diversity.

“There is a growing awareness…that extant large carnivores may be necessary to maintain the biodiversity of native species,” concluded a 2009 study, which summarized findings on predators atop Arizona’s Kaibab Plateau in Arizona. Jasper National Park in Canada. “…Where possible, the recovery of large carnivores may be necessary to reverse ecological degradation.”

“Landscape of Fear”

Much of the high-level work on the importance of wolves and other apex predators to healthy natural communities comes from Yellowstone National Park, led by scientists William Ripple and Robert Beschta of Oregon State University.

After the eradication of the gray wolf in the 1920s, uncontrolled populations of elk and deer overgrazed parts of the park so much that there was little or no “recruitment” of many woody plants, meaning little or no stands of willow, aspen, poplar, alder. and other species as they have been aggressively grazed.

A 2015 synthesis of dozens of studies conducted over the past 20 years at Yellowstone documented a profound shift in the park – elk have assumed the dominant role in the landscape, “essentially pushing these systems into alternate states in which the native species biodiversity and ecosystem services have declined.”

The return of the Gray Wolf in 1995 reversed that.

“Researchers have documented major behavioral effects by which elk in Yellowstone National Park, under risk of predation by wolves, altered their habitat use, movements, group size, alertness, and behavior. other traits,” one of the studies revealed.

The result is what scientists call a ‘fear landscape’, as prey must now balance their foraging needs with their safety and take over a secondary role, but the key word here is ‘balance’, not ‘fear’. .

The restored order of things has sparked a resurgence of trees and woody species – in some places for the first time in nearly 70 years – and populations of insects, birds and other mammals have shifted . Life has improved for crows, magpies, bald eagles and pronghorns and a host of other species, but not for coyotes. The beaver population has increased 12-fold in parts of the park, which is important for waterfowl and rivers. (Wyoming streams with beaver ponds have 75 times — you read that right — the waterfowl population of streams without beaver ponds.)

The park has seen greater berry production, to the benefit of bears and birds, and this, combined with the resurgence of willow, has led to increased populations of flycatchers, sparrows, warbling vireos and other songbirds. .

Most dramatically, the restoration of riverbank vegetation has helped repair decades of damage to rivers. In the absence of wolves, overbrowsing at the edges of streams had led to greater erosion and widening and shallowing of streams and given shallower streams and lack of shade at the edge of watercourses, even a warming of the water; the return of the wolf has brought back riparian vegetation, including trees with taller crowns, stabilizing the banks, meaning the rivers no longer braid, deepen or heat up.

“It appears that wolves initiated a restructuring of northern Yellowstone ecosystems via passive restoration,” the authors concluded in a 2011 study.

They summarized it this way in another report: “Results from Yellowstone, other areas of western North America, and around the world increasingly indicate the need to recover ecologically efficient populations of large predators to help recover or maintain biodiversity in ungulate landscapes. ”

Which brings me back to our former Ozarksman. Given everything we now know about its cousin Yellowstone, could the red wolf also prove more of an ally than an adversary in parts of its former range, including southern Missouri and the Arkansas?

Antlerless wolves

If there is to be any ultimate hope for red wolves, it could be found in the wisdom of someone who understood both wolves and woods.

Aldo Leopold was one of the first to claim that without the wolf, natural communities are out of balance – sometimes dramatically – and end up becoming a dark, decaying reflection of all that they had been.

Léopold even asked himself in an essay: is a wood without a wolf just any wood?

This barrage of science has given us the answer, and it’s a screaming “No.”

Which makes me wonder about us. Is an Ozarks without wolves or other apex predators such as cougars a kind of Ozarks? Or just another dark reflection?

Keeping alive any hope of restoring an intact, diverse, and healthy Ozarks, or for that matter other natural communities elsewhere in the southeastern United States, means weighing in now for the red wolf recovery effort, before that the animal is lost in the wild.

I hope Arkansas and Missouri are paying attention; they must be because one of the key species of the Ozarks is in danger of becoming extinct.

The plan has always been to have three separate populations of red wolves somewhere in its former range. One of them is currently in North Carolina, but that future is now in question.

A number of candidate sites have been identified in scientific studies and by conservation groups, from the Everglades to federal lands in Kentucky to the Ozarks. These studies cover habitat, prey and deer density, livestock density, road density, land ownership (private or public), ability to manage coyotes and more. The Ozarks generally rank better than average in these surveys and sometimes even near the top. That makes sense, considering the red wolf has held out in the Ozarks longer than anywhere in its historic range except parts of Texas and Louisiana.

Once he’s gone from the wild, there will still be a few hundred of these American originals living in zoos and wildlife breeding centers, but banishment to that kind of life seems unworthy of an original. American.

To reverse the question posed by Aldo Leopold, one could also ask: is an antlerless wolf just any wolf?

Without intervention, the Ozarks and the Red Wolf, it seems, are doomed to remain dark, decaying reflections of all they once were.

Andy Ostmeyer is the metro editor of the Joplin Globe. Contact him at

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