Wolf wars: Can man and predator coexist in the West?
As the gray wolf comes off the Endangered Species list, new questions swirl about whether the animal can survive without federal protection – and its impact on cattle and other wildlife. The view from one ranch.
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This may well be what continues to happen – a natural rise and fall in the populations of predator and prey. Mech, the wolf guru in Minnesota, says that is what occurred in Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior, where researchers have studied the coexistence of wolves and moose for 50 years. At one point, some observers predicted doom for the moose. But both species have increased and decreased in a cyclical pattern – and the wolf, Mech says, may be the one that vanishes first.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Can there be peace in the Wolf Wars?
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Yellowstone, of course, is a far more complicated ecosystem. It has both more animals to be eaten and more to do the eating – from mountain lions and coyotes to grizzlies and black bears. Still, Mech says, drive-by biologists try to rewrite natural history when they say wolves will destroy prey until there are none left. It hasn't happened in Alaska and Canada, and it won't occur in the Lower 48, either, he says.
That doesn't mean wolf packs can't have severe local effects on certain wildlife and don't need to be removed. Douglas Smith, the lead wolf biologist in Yellowstone, says wolves have cut into the numbers of elk and moose, though a host of factors – including drought, other predators, and big-game hunting outside the park – are all contributors. Yet one positive effect of the loss of elk has been the return of beavers – once a prevalent and important member of the park's wildlife clan.
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The ranch the Robinetts manage, owned by a New Yorker, lies at the end of an unpaved road that at this time of year – probably anytime of year – is best reached by four-wheel drive vehicle. The grounds consist of two ranch houses (one unoccupied) and two cabins, all made of logs, as well as several barns (the main one tidy enough to be in Architectural Digest magazine), and a split-rail horse pasture. The ranch was once owned by Walt Disney, but the tale that has unfolded here of late is anything but Disneyesque.
Sitting in the main ranch house, where racks of antlers and horse tack hang from walls, the Robinetts spread out photographs in the kitchen that chronicle the life of a modern rancher. Many of the images evoke an enviable tableau: of grandchildren feeding livestock and playing cowboy in the sprawling verdant meadows of a Dunoir Valley free of outside lights. But others are unsettling – shots of cattle and family pets mauled by area wolf packs. The Robinetts didn't take these photos for any kind of ghoulish satisfaction: Wyoming will compensate ranchers who lose cattle or horses to wolves – if they can prove that wolves were the culprits.
Alertness to predators is a constant necessity at the Diamond G. The area is home to at least three wolf packs and roughly 20 grizzlies. The Robinetts often sleep with their windows open so they can hear if anything might be spooking the cattle. They keep a high-powered scope on a tripod in the kitchen to monitor the distant herd. Debbie always wears a pistol on her hip and carries pepper spray when going out to feed the horses, a practice re-inforced the day she walked into the barn to find a grizzly. (She and Jon concluded it was a "lazy" one since its claws were long, suggesting it was looking for easy food instead of scavenging, like most of its brethren, for berries and insects.)
Despite the constant surveillance and frequent intrusions, the Robinetts are pragmatists rather than polemicists in a debate over wolves that has few moderates. They don't hate wolves, at least Jon doesn't. Debbie is less charitable when the conversation veers to lost pets. They have helped US Fish and Wildlife authorities tag and count wolves on their property. Jon can identify some of the predators by name.