New data from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources suggests Wisconsin’s wolf population may be stabilizing – a natural development which occurs to wolf populations when left undisturbed by humans (not managed via hunting, trapping, and hounding).
Wolf populations regulate themselves by natural forces such as intra-pack strife, competition with neighboring packs and predators, food availability, and ailments like distemper and mange. Packs continuously emerge and collapse; it’s Nature’s way.
Wolves were removed from the federal Endangered Species Act by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2011. The next year state lawmakers established a controversial trophy wolf hunt, which included the use of dogs. Hunters killed 654 wolves during three consecutive hunting seasons.
Despite a federal court ruling that restored federal protections for wolves in 2014, Republican lawmakers from Wisconsin along with a bipartisan group of the state’s congressional delegation have been calling for Congress to pass legislation stripping wolves of ESA protection to allow for trophy hunting and trapping to resume.
Learning from Yellowstone
In 1995-96, wolves were released into Yellowstone National Park. The recovery of the gray wolf after its eradication from Yellowstone, nearly a century ago, serves as a demonstration of how critical keystone species are to the long-term sustainability of the ecosystems they inhabit.
Since reintroduction over 20 years ago, the 2+ million-acre park has acted as a laboratory, offering scientists a deeper understanding of the complexity of that ecosystem, including the diverse pressures (beyond lethal control by humans) that manage wolf populations.
Because hunting wolves is not permitted within the Park boundaries, Yellowstone offers us a chance to see what happens to wolf populations when left undisturbed by humans.
In Yellowstone, wolf numbers have grown and stabilized to the point that wolves could essentially post a “no vacancy sign” at the park’s entrance. The wolf population has hovered for the last decade at 100, give or take, which experts consider Yellowstone’s carrying capacity.
Carrying capacity describes the maximum number of individuals or species that a specific environment’s resources can sustain for an indefinite period without degrading it. Once a species reaches its carrying capacity, population numbers stabilize.
Factors that affect the carrying capacity include:
- Food Availability
- Disease (canine distemper virus, mange, etc…)
- Intra- pack strife
- Competition with other predators (bears, mountain lions, coyotes)