Wolves strike fear into the hearts of many species, humans included. Our fear of them has brought them to the edge of extinction, as we have relentlessly killed them as competitors and trouble-makers. But researchers are discovering that the very fear they instill in prey species is exactly what helps make ecosystems healthy and robust.
Yellowstone National Park is a prime example of just how wolves can help restore an ecosystem. An October 2018 study analyzed 40 years of research on large mammals inside the park.
"Yellowstone has benefited from the reintroduction of wolves in ways that we did not anticipate, especially the complexity of biological interactions in the park," explained Mark Boyce, professor in the Department of Biological Sciences and Alberta Conservation Association Chair in Fisheries and Wildlife. "We would have never seen these responses if the park hadn't followed an ecological-process management paradigm — allowing natural ecological processes to take place with minimal human intervention."
After the wolves were re-introduced at Yellowstone, willow and cottonwood trees increased in number. The population of grizzly bears, cougars and bison also rose and what was once a dominant elk-wolf interaction is now more diverse.
To learn more about just how wolves are beneficial, the short documentary from Quest seen above explains how the presence of wolves alters the behavior of deer and elk, which ultimately makes entire ecosystems more biologically diverse and healthy.
Does “the big bad wolf” play an important role in the modern-day food web? In this video we journey to Washington State’s Cascade Mountains, where the return of wolves could have a profound impact on a vast wilderness area. We meet up with biologist Aaron Wirsing to explore why wolves and other top predators are needed for diverse ecosystems to flourish. Using a simple video camera (a “deer-cam”) Wirsing is gaining a unique perspective on predator/prey relationships and changing the way we think about wolves.
The research is one more piece of evidence for why protecting these apex predators is important not just for wolves as a species, but for hundreds of species at every level of an ecosystem. The fear they instill may be the very angle that helps save them from extinction.
Editor's note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in March 2014.