Wolves help preserve berries for imperiled Yellowstone bears: study

Mon Jul 29, 2013 4:15pm EDT
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By Laura Zuckerman

SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - The return of wolves to Yellowstone National Park may be helping imperiled grizzly bears to survive by keeping elk herds on the move and preventing them from destroying berries that are a staple food for grizzlies, according to a new study.

In the mid-1990s, the U.S. government released fewer than 100 wolves into the park and the wilderness near Salmon, Idaho, to restore an iconic Western animal that had been hunted, trapped and poisoned to near extinction in the Northern Rocky Mountains.

Today, roughly 1,700 wolves roam the Yellowstone border states of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, where hundreds of the predators have been hunted and killed since being removed in 2011 and 2012 from the federal threatened species list.

Scientists suspected nearly two decades ago but couldn't say with precision that the reintroduction of an apex predator missing from the larger Yellowstone landscape for 70 years would help restore an ecosystem hobbled by overgrazing by elk, bison and cattle.

Research published on Monday in the Journal of Animal Ecology suggests Yellowstone wolves may play a pivotal role if threatened grizzlies are to flourish.

Yellowstone grizzlies showed greater quantities of berries in their scat after the wolves' reintroduction, which has thinned and dispersed elk herds and reduced concentrated foraging that can destroy berry bushes, researchers found.

"What is interesting and surprising here is that we have one large predator affecting another large predator," said Oregon State University ecologist William Ripple, the study's lead author.


A wolf walks with a set of elk legs in the Hayden Valley after killing and eating it in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, in this June 20, 2011 file photo. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart/Files