Are wolves aiding songbird populations?

Yellowstone wolf

A wolf in Yellowstone National Park, wearing a radio collar, watches biologists. Courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published Jan. 13, 2009, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “It’s possible wolves in Yellowstone are having a positive effect on songbirds.”

2015 Update: New studies show that wolves are not the only cog missing in the Yellowstone ecosystem. The park needs its beavers to build dams and recharge the subsurface water so the willows will grow better and the songbirds will multiply. See High Country News, Dec. 8, 2014, Vol. 46, No. 21, “Have returning wolves really saved Yellowstone?” www.hcn.org.

By Barb Gorges

Back in the early 1990s, the National Audubon Society lobbied for the reintroduction of wolves in the Yellowstone ecosystem.

Why, some folks wondered, would an organization with a name equated with bird conservation be interested in wolves?

An Audubon member myself, I agreed with the ecologists who were saying it was important to have all the pieces of an ecosystem, from top dog predator on down to burying beetle and I lobbied for wolves on ecological principles.

There were a couple people who thought wolves shouldn’t be reintroduced because, based on a few anecdotes, wolves might already be present.

If there were wolves in Yellowstone immediately before reintroduction, and not just casual stragglers or hybrids and captives dumped by people, they were nearly invisible, awfully quiet, well behaved and unproductive.

Today, commercial enterprises will take you on a wolf tour (www. wolftracker.com). Reintroduced wolves multiplied so quickly they also became a noticeable nuisance to livestock operators.

Wolves are apparently having an effect on the Yellowstone ecosystem that their predator stand-ins, the coyotes, were not able to achieve between early 20th century wolf eradication programs and wolf reintroduction in 1995. The willows are increasing, which means increasing numbers of songbirds.

Doug Smith, leader of the Yellowstone Wolf Project for Yellowstone National Park, in a reply to my email query, was quick to point out that studies are still ongoing and that some people believe there is more than the wolf at work in the growth of willow shrubs. Papers are in the process of being written and Smith said, “As far as wolf impacts on songbirds, we are on our way to establishing the link that goes through willow and elk.”

Willow grows in riparian zones, the areas along creeks and rivers. A healthy riparian zone, with lots of vegetation, absorbs rainfall and snowmelt like a sponge and releases it slowly into creeks. In an unhealthy situation, with little vegetation present, water runs off quickly, eroding the surface, depositing sediment in the stream where it suffocates fish eggs and the invertebrates that feed fish.

In a healthy riparian zone, vegetation slows the runoff water. Slow water can’t carry as much sediment and organic matter and so it drops it on the plants adjacent to the stream, rather than in the stream. Riparian plants, such as willow, thrive on and grow through the sediment deposits, eventually providing more and more vegetation.

If the lack of vegetation in a riparian zone is from overgrazing by wildlife or livestock, managers can reverse the trend by either fencing the animals out for a period of time, or reducing the number of animals grazing and/or the time and amount they graze.

National park managers have restrictions that prevent them from removing elk, which have kept the willows trimmed too well while the wolves were out of the picture.

However, the willows seem to be recovering and expanding. One theory is that climate change is providing a longer growing season. Another theory is that the Yellowstone fires of 1988 provided a huge increase in forbs (non-woody plants including wildflowers) that elk like better than shrubs and they grazed the willows less.

A third theory is that elk no longer get to graze willows at their leisure since wolves are constantly nipping at their heels and running them off.

Range management scientists have spent years conducting studies of the effects of various grazing schemes and could probably make some predictions, but every ecosystem has its quirks.

Whether the wolves are totally or partly responsible for the regeneration of Yellowstone willows, we can reasonably predict healthier riparian zones.

From my birdwatcher’s perspective, this means more and greater diversity of songbirds which are attracted to the insects associated with the willows, and the shelter their shrubbiness provides. Smith listed willow flycatcher, yellow warbler, common yellowthroat, Lincoln’s sparrow and song sparrow in particular.

Improved riparian habitat means improved fisheries. It also means ephemeral and intermittent streams will flow a little longer each year.

The increase in vegetation can support more critters (even livestock outside the park). Wyoming’s riparian zones are important to something like 70 percent of wildlife species.

Bureaucracy and politics will continue to plague the Yellowstone wolves, but if studies show wolves have helped repair an important part of their ecosystem, reintroduction has been worthwhile.

Birding Yellowstone

Trumpeter Swans

Trumpeter Swans. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published Sept. 5, 2002, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Park’s best known bird remains elusive.”

2014 Update: Despite both locations being in Wyoming, my hometown, Cheyenne, and Yellowstone National Park, they are a day’s drive apart and I don’t get to visit Yellowstone as often as I’d like.

By Barb Gorges

There wasn’t a hummingbird to be seen on our family’s mid-August trip through Yellowstone.

No familiar rattle of feathers to indicate our examination by a broad-tailed hummingbird and no sign of the other species common to the park, calliope and rufous.

Their absence shouldn’t have been a surprise to me, since we’re used to seeing hummingbirds in Cheyenne as early as the end of July, when they begin to leave the high country.

The checklist and ecological chart at the back of Terry McEneaney’s definitive book, “Birds of Yellowstone,” confirmed my observations. Plus, McEneaney, the park’s bird biologist, rates hummingbirds as difficult to see, even at the peak of summer.

I checked out a copy of the “Birds of Yellowstone” from the public library last winter while doing research for the “Wyoming Bird Flashcards” CD-ROM and decided a trip to Yellowstone merited buying my own.

After finding a copy in the park, I looked up the trumpeter swan, the species I most wanted to see but have never seen in the park. Mary Bay on Yellowstone Lake and the Seven Mile Bridge on the road to West Yellowstone were recommended, but the time of year wasn’t perfect. Every potential swan turned out to be a white pelican.

My first trip to Yellowstone was 30 years ago and most of the half dozen trips since then have been quick drive-throughs. This time we stayed one night in a six-plex “cabin” at Canyon but still traveled only the front country.

Driving from one scenic icon to the next must be what it’s like to do the Stations of the Cross. Instead of stops for prayers, we stopped for photographs. The Yellowstone pilgrimage quickly becomes a litany of boardwalks and blacktop, mudpots and moose, rivers and ravens, geysers and gray jays.

After dinner, on the way back to our cabin, we made one more stop at the Norris Geyser Basin. Our rule is “waste no daylight hour” since our trips to Yellowstone are infrequent.

We came upon an audience waiting for a geyser show and decided to wait too. However, as the landscape marked with plumes of steam darkened, we decided to head back, but still finish the rest of the loop trail.

It’s not easy to find solitude on a boardwalk in the Yellowstone caldera basin, but twilight is a good bet. We were alone, except for killdeer skittering on the thin sheets of water spreading across mineral deposits. Only the occasional pop or hiss of a mud pot added to the normal outdoor sounds.

Early morning, especially on a Sunday, turned out to be another good time to find the park alone. Our cabin on P Loop was only a 20-minute walk through forest to Grand View Point, which overlooks the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

We hiked down the Red Rock trail and waited, alone, for the clouds to roll back so we could take pictures of the Lower Falls. An osprey swooped picturesquely in front of the spray, chased by two kestrels. It’s that black dot in the middle of my picture.

Later, our family was the only human life to be seen on a long section of black beach near Gull Point. And we even picked an unpopular, though not unpopulated, picnic area for lunch.

Shortly after sitting down at the table I realized we weren’t alone. First one gray jay and then another lighted in the tree branches over our heads. What beady eyes!

Then two Clark’s nutcrackers came on the scene. The four birds shuffled from perch to perch, but never shifted their gaze from us for long, in hopes we’d leave a crumb.

The two species are in the same bird family, of similar size and gray color and both have been referred to as “camp robbers,” but when they are next to each other, it’s easy to see the nutcracker has a bill twice the length of the gray jay’s and has black wings.

My list of additional birds for this trip is not long: kingfisher, kinglet, redpoll, merganser, swallow, woodpecker, unidentifiable ducks, various blackbirds, and even a species as pedestrian as the robin.

Erik Blom, columnist for the Birdwatcher’s Digest, in an article in the September-October issue, lists Yellowstone as one of the top 25 places in the country every bird watcher needs to visit at least once.

Once is not enough, I’ve decided, unless the trip is just a little earlier in the summer, on some kind of excursion with a local expert like Terry McEneaney, and most importantly, less by car and more by foot.