As Aldo Leopold and Adolph Murie argued eloquently decades ago, keystone predators, especially wolves, are essential for resilient, healthy ecosystems.
As top-level predators, they are influential in shaping and maintaining the structure of their natural communities. By regulating prey populations, wolves induce vegetative changes allowing for the return of beaver, migrating birds, and other species previously driven out of denuded habitats. In this regard, wolves have a trickle-down effect on other populations, a phenomenon known as a “trophic cascade”.
Predation by wolves also removes animals that are weaker genetically or harbor sicknesses. As selective predators, wolves provide a protective gauntlet that can help slow the spread and prevalence of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) – the ultra-lethal degenerative neurological illness now invading wildlife-rich ecosystems across the American landscape.
By the 1960s, government-sponsored extermination had wiped out nearly all wolves in the Lower 48 states, with only a small population left in extreme northeastern Minnesota and on Isle Royale.
With the support of the American public and the safety net of the Endangered Species Act, the wolf was able to return to portions of its native range in the Lower 48.
The return of the wolf reflects more fully functional and wild ecosystems. It also shows that we are capable and committed to correcting the mistakes of the past.