Thursday, August 04, 2005

Wolf Palette: The Wolves of Yellowstone

Thanks to WorldChanging, I found this article on the return of wolves to Yellowstone. Seems appropriate as I get ready for a week up in the Sierra.

There is color in the land again. Or perhaps the color was always there, like a pigment in the soil, but was simply rendered imperceptible for a while. But not for long. Not all that much separated the land—famous already for the mineral-rich hues of its cliffs and mountains, its gurgling hot springs and bubbling mudpots—in terms of time or space, from the breath of the wolves that would bring the color back like painters.

In the ten years since the wolves have been back they have reshaped huge sections of an awkwardly leaning ecosystem[...]

By pruning the wildly excessive elk numbers, and by forcing the elk to be elk again, the Yellowstone wolves kept the elk herds on the move, allowing overgrazed riparian areas to recover. The elk were no longer encamping in any one spot like feedlot animals, and the restored riverbanks served as nesting and feeding habitat for songbirds of different hues. Blink, and a howl equals the color yellow.

Where previously the overcrowded and static elk and deer herds conspired to keep stands of aspen from regenerating, browsing with sharp teeth any and all young aspen suckers as soon as they emerged, the beautiful groves of aspen, snow-white bark and quivering gold leaves in the fall, are now prospering, flaring back up on the landscape like so many tens of thousands of autumn-lit candles. Entire mountain ranges are ultimately being painted anew—more color, more vitality, more light—by the arrival of, initially, a mated pair of wolves, an alpha male and female, followed by the next wave of other wolves, new wolves.

Certainly the renewal of the aspen, and of streamside deciduous trees that had previously been repressed by the overabundance of elk—willow, cottonwood, ninebark, chokecherry—is not limited to showcase-only values of painterly aesthetics. As in all of wild nature, there is function everywhere—purpose, meaning, and a sophistication beyond our wildest dreams. Cerulean, sapphire, bordeaux, jade—the return of deciduous saplings to the hoof-cut, denuded riverbanks once abused by too many elk has been good for more than songbirds and artists. Beavers, too, have prospered, able now to access their requisite building and feeding materials without needing to venture so far into dangerous territory. This has resulted in the return of more backwater ponds and pools and eddies, the filtering and life-support systems for so much other river life, and provided a greater distribution of nutrients in the shallow sloughs that back up and create gentle floods behind the beaver dams. In these shallow areas of submersion young cottonwoods prosper—more flame color, and more beaver habitat.

On overly long excerpt, I know. Please follow the link and read the whole thing. Its a very beautiful image it portrays. May it be retold in the future about other returned species and other reinvigorated wildlands.

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