Wolves benefit your tulips, turnips, and the rest of your garden–not to mention much larger ecosystems. The Sierra Club Rocky Mountain Chapter urges Colorado gardeners and anybody interested in a healthy web of life to stand up on behalf of Gray Wolves. An ecologist, Delia Malone encouraged gardeners and other friends of nature to attend the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s public hearing in Denver on Tuesday, November 19, from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at the Paramount Theatre .
“Why should gardeners care about wolves? Because humans and wolves are all part of an intricate web of life. Without all of the strands of the web intact, the health of the ecosystem and human life is diminished,” Malone said in an email interview.
If you’re a gardener who cares about ecosystems, you may know that wolves serve as keystone top predators in natural ecosystems, including Colorado’s wilderness. At least historically. Wolves are not welcome in Colorado currently, and the upcoming hearing will affect the fate of wolves in the future.
Why should gardeners care about wolves?
“Ecosystems are complex,” said Malone. She urged Colorado gardeners to educate themselves on wolves’ contributions to healthy ecosystems and to take action on behalf of wolves.
The story of the Gray Wolf as a keystone top predator in natural ecosystems is a complicated and an often heated political issue. Malone emphasized wolves’ interconnectedness with not only forests, but also gardens.
Wolves affect the birds and the bees,
butterflies, trees, everything
“If you’re a bird lover, or a bee lover, or a butterfly lover, and you love your tulips and vegetables, probably quite a bit. In Colorado, if the Gray Wolf returns, we can expect them to prey on elk, mule deer, and white-tailed deer as well as on small mammals such as rabbits and squirrels,” Malone said.
“The role of wolves as a keystone predator has both direct and indirect effects that reverberate throughout the ecosystem. Direct effects include their role in regulating mammal populations by opportunistically preying on older, weaker and younger individuals – essentially leaving more tulips and vegetables for you,” said Malone.
She explained the effect of wolves on the circle of life’s food chain: “Indirect effects include their role in improving native plant communities by reducing the impact of herbivores — deer, elk, rabbits — on native vegetation, thereby improving the quality of plant communities for pollinators such as hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies – all essential to successful gardens be they natural or cultural gardens.”
Gray Wolves in Colorado history
Colorado no longer includes Gray Wolves, which were extirpated by the mid-1940s. The Rocky Mountain Sierra Club notes: “The last wolf population endemic to Colorado was hunted by government financial incentives mostly in the late 1800’s, with the last wolf killed in the early 1940’s. They were subsequently saved elsewhere by the Endangered Species Act, which allowed them to begin to flourish again in the mountains and forests of the United States, in places like Yellowstone National Park and the northern woods of Michigan. But they still have a long way to go, and there are still no wolves permanently living in the Colorado Southern Rockies. Losing endangered species protection now would be a disaster for wolves.”
“We don’t have any modern-day experience here in Colorado with regard to the impact of a healthy wolf population on system health,” Malone said.
Wolves play essential roles in ecosystem health
“What we do have is a good ecological understanding regarding the essential role that top, keystone predators play in ecosystem health. And we do have experience with the response of ecosystems to the reintroduction of wolves in places such as Yellowstone National Park, as well as their impact in locations such as Minnesota, where there is a thriving wolf population, and also on Isle Royale in Lake Superior, where there is “self-introduced” population of wolves.”
When wolves return, so do songbirds, beavers, other species
At Yellowstone National Park, biologists have documented wolf-induced improvements to ecosystems–especially near streams, rivers, and other watercourses forming what’s known as riparian habitat.
“The wolf-induced changes include the improvement of stream and riparian habitat so much so that songbirds that haven’t been seen in Yellowstone for decades are now again nesting there. Beaver, which have also been absent for decades, have returned to some of their historic stream habitats where their dam-building activity has raised the water table, thereby restoring riparian vegetation, improving stream quality and flows, which provides high quality habitat for neotropical migrant songbirds and native fish,” Malone said.
“The role of wolves in this rather dramatic ecosystem restoration has to do with the response of elk to wolves: without wolves, elk tend to stay in riparian habitats, eating themselves out of house and home and decimating riparian vegetation.”
Before and after photographs demonstrate the wear and tear elk inflict on stream banks and surrounding plant life. Elk can be especially hard on aspen—and many species rely upon healthy aspen for habitat. In addition, due to their watery nature, aspen serve as natural firebreaks, helping thwart wildfires.
“Elk impact on riparian habitat in Yellowstone is similar to the impact of elk in Rocky Mountain National Park,” Malone said. “In Yellowstone, riparian habitat was degraded, willow were generally eliminated and aspen were mostly decimated. As soon as any suckers would come up they were eaten by the elk. Without young aspen to replace the old, aspen forests were dying.”
Wolves’ return repaired suffering ecosystem
“With the return of wolves in Yellowstone National Park, elk have moved out of riparian habitat where they are more vulnerable to predation and into upland habitat where they can see their predators coming,” said Malone.
“That effectively reduces elk herbivory on riparian vegetation and enables vegetation recovery. With the return of the Gray Wolf in Yellowstone National Park, this ecosystem scenario has reversed itself and self-restoration is in process,” said Malone.
In Rocky Mountain National Park, however, the habitat without wolves continues to be degraded by excessive elk populations. Malone said the park service has responded by erecting fences around stream and riparian habitat to keep the elk out.
What can Colorado gardeners do to help protect wolves?
“Gray Wolves are not recovered and need continued protection provided by the Endangered Species Act,” said Malone, who encourages support of continued ESA Gray Wolf protection and opposition of de-listing of the Gray Wolf.
“Come to the Gray Wolf hearing in Denver or write a letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,” said Malone.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is holding a public hearing in Denver on its proposal to de-list gray wolves across most of the United States.
Paramount Theatre , 1621 Glenarm Place, Denver, Colorado 80202 Tuesday, November 19th from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.
Malone said, “Sign-up to testify starts at 5 p.m . Before you attend the public hearing, please join fellow wolf supporters at a pre-hearing training and rally at Crowne Plaza Hotel , 1450 Glenarm Place , Denver, Colorado 80202 on Tuesday, November 19th from 3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m.
For those who cannot attend the hearting, Malone urges wolf supporters to submit written comments to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by December 17th at this link or the following email address: http://www.regulations.gov/#!home
Learn more about Gray Wolves at the Defenders of Wildlife website.
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