The Sunday Seattle Times had an excellent article on how wolves might restore the ecosystems of Olympic National Park. 

The basic idea is this:

…elk today don’t behave like they did when wolf packs were on the prowl. Gone is the “ecology of fear” that kept browsers on the move, wary of narrow river bottoms and thick brush… the big herbivores feel complacent enough to hang out in the valleys and eat their fill. That’s disastrous for the young plants they fancy most, like cottonwood, hemlock, big leaf maple and Western red cedar.

Beschta and Ripple walked transects in the park’s valleys, counting and aging every cottonwood and big leaf maple. They found that after wolves were eradicated, very few seedlings made it past the knee-high stage.

Along one 3-mile stretch of the Hoh, not a single new cottonwood survived the ravenous elk in the last half-century.

If it sounds familiar, it’s because the article is based on the same research I wrote about here a couple of months ago. The Times also has a neat—if somewhat too brief—video that explains some of the research findings.

But in case the words “ungulate” and “extirpated” aren’t in your everyday vocabulary, I’m going to break it down for you.

  • When wolves were hunted to exinction on the Peninsula, the elk populations boomed. All those elk were hungry and they so they started munching away, particularly on the tender young saplings in river bottoms. Without adequate plant growth and the soil-stabilizing action of young trees, the Olympic rivers began to erode their banks, widening and braiding into the multi-channeled forms we now see commonly in the Quinault, Hoh, and other rainforest streams. All this means that the removal of a single key species—the gray wolf—resulted in a cascade of effects that today may be harming the native salmon and steelhead populations.

    Consider:

    The explorers of the Press Expedition, which crossed the Olympic Peninsula in 1890, described the upper Quinault River as “so dense with underbrush as to be almost impenetrable.” They tried to float the river, but found it jammed with logs—bad for navigation, but excellent for fish.

    “These rivers don’t look anything like that today,” Beschta said, surveying the bare gravel and scattered logs.

    On two river sections outside the park where elk are less plentiful, the scientists documented narrower channels and stream banks less damaged by browsing and erosion.

    The whole thing is sort of a West Coast version of what researchers have found in Yellowstone National Park and other places where wolves have been returned to their rightful homes. The Rocky Mountain ecosystems have rebounded with astonishing rapidity.

    So what’s next for wolves? Well, we have a new interior secretary. We have wolves returning to Washington on their own. And now we have at least some science showing the harm done by the absence of wolves. Can we start talking about reintroducing wolves to the Olympics? Is public opinion ready?