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Why the return of the wolf is good news for the bear

New research shows that the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park has brought a berry boon to bears, a find that suggests the far-flung, often unexpected impacts a top predator can have on its ecosystem. 

By Contributor / July 29, 2013

The reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park after a 70 year disappearance has brought a berry boon to bears, scientists have found.

Yellowstone National Park

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The reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park has delivered a boon of berries to the area’s grizzly bears, according to new research that highlights the vast ecological reaches of an ecosystem’s top predators.

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Researchers at Oregon State University have found that a surge in the wolf population in the northwestern United States over the past 19 years has set off an ecological chain reaction that’s in the end good news for bears: more wolves has cut into elk numbers, thus raising the amount of available berries, thereby providing a juicy supply of food for bears. The new research joins mounting studies pinpointing how a food chain’s top animal – from Spain’s lynx to the Pacific Ocean’s shark – is critical to an ecosystem’s success, emphasizing the importance of programs aimed at protecting some of nature’s most ferocious predators. 

“Scientists from all over the world are finding that top predators have strong ecological effects,” says William Ripple, a professor of forest ecosystems at Oregon State University and lead author on the paper, published in the Journal of Animal Ecology. “The top predator can influence the biodiversity of an entire ecosystem.”

The grey wolf, with its confident, yellow-eyed gaze and strong-featured face rimmed in thick hair, has been a focal point of environmentalist debates dating back some 100 years. The drama begins around 1900, when the US government backed sweeping “predator control” programs that tore into the wolf populations in Yellowstone, the geyser-studded park established in 1872 in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho.

The programs – or, organized hunts – were effective: as of about 1970, all the wolves had been removed from the park. And, in the predator’s absence, other populations exploded: the elk, a massive mammal with antlers fanning like pterodactyl wings, boomed in number.

But in 1995, the US acted on years-in-the-making plans to reintroduce wolves to the park, responding to accumulating evidence that the original program had been shortsighted and that the ecosystem was now reeling from the loss of a keystone species. That endeavor that has been successful enough for the government to this year make the controversial statement that the wolf no longer needs endangered species protection.

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