News Stories

Why Wolves are Important

Willow trees, warblers and beaver dams were once common in Canada. But when wolves left this area, elk grew more plentiful, and they ate all the young willows. Today, there are few beavers, and sparrows have replaced the warblers that once sang in the willow trees. Every single one of these changes is due to the disappearance of the wolf, the top predator in that ecological system.

A study by Mark Hebblewhite shows that over hunting of a single predator can change the entire ecology of a huge area. In the mid-1980s, wolves started arriving naturally in Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada. Urbanization of the nearby town of Banff prevented wolves from returning to areas closer to town. Hebblewhite examined the effects of the absence of wolves on the number of elk, which are their perfect prey, as well as on plants such as the willow, which elks like to eat. He found that in areas with no wolves, elk populations were 10 times higher than normal. As numbers of elk climbed when the wolves were killed off, the number of beavers declined, probably because they could no longer find enough trees with which to build dams. Songbirds that were dependent on the willow trees declined as well.

A world without wolves turns out to be a much quieter, less interesting place.

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