There used to be several subspecies of the grey wolf in Texas and now, to all intents and purposes, there are no wolves at all. They were driven out over the course of the twentieth century, the Mexican wolf practically becoming extinct and the red wolf often being reduced to interbreeding with coyotes. Their systematic extermination was due above all to their predation on livestock and also their interference with game hunting, both of which were a result of them being forced to find alternatives to their natural prey.
Nowadays it would seem that there is a majority opinion in favour of reintroducing wolves to Texas. Given that they are ultimately dangerous animals and might still be drawn to stealing young calves, it might at first glance appear to be an illogical move, but there are environmental reasons to support it drawn from studies made in Yellowstone Park.
The buzz term here is ‘trophic cascade’, which means the ecological process whereby a change at the top of the food chain impacts on the next level down, which in turn impacts on the next level, and so on down to plants at the bottom of the chain. Other animals not directly in the food chain may also be affected, and geographical features connected to the ecological system may undergo changes as a consequence as well.
In the case of the food chain headed by wolves, the next level down are deer, especially elk, which in the absence of wolves can build up in numbers and seriously damage the vegetation, grazing it sometimes to nothing. Wolves hunt and eat elk – with difficulty sometimes as elk have powerful kicks – but more importantly they make elk feel less at home and drive them to avoid certain key spots of especial suitability to vegetation such as valleys and gorges. Reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone was supposedly followed by the sprouting of forests of such trees as aspen, willow and cottonwood, and the presence of these trees attracted birds, beavers and a host of other wildlife onwardly connected to them. Even the predation of coyotes by the wolves had an effect in that rabbits and mice were now more available to other species.
Scientists were especially excited by their observations of changes in rivers, whose banks were apparently subject to less erosion as a consequence of the stabilising vegetation and therefore meandered less, developing pools which were ideal for certain species of fish and amphibian. The forests also prevented landslips.
The reason why the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone is such a flagship is that it was an attempt to repair the natural order by means of reversal. Man removed the wolves and man has put them back; on the surface it seems to have worked.
There are critics and sceptics regarding the Yellowstone experience. The main argument is that the whole ecosystem is a great deal more complex than it has been given credit for. One study showed that aspen trees had not regrown despite a 60% decline in the number of elk. Another study suggested that wolves were reintroduced too late to save willows because the damage done to them by elks had caused beavers to decline in numbers, fast-flowing streams were cutting deeper in the absence of beaver dams, and as a consequence the water table had dropped below the reach of the willow roots. Another point is that there are diverse reasons for elk populations to have declined besides the presence of wolves so therefore a clear connection cannot be made.
These are serious studies, concluding that ‘sanctifying the wolf’ may be misguided, but Yellowstone created a wave of publicity and continues to dazzle environmentalists and the public alike, such that attempts at reintroduction of wolves have been made in the southern states, some ranchers even conceding that the return of the wolf would enhance land values.
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, firmly on the side of ranchers and landowners, claimed that a Texas state law forbade the releasing of wolves in the wild. But a later section of the same law exempts endangered species from the ruling. This is important because two wolf subspecies native to Texas came so close to extinction that captive breeding has been the only way of saving them. Such red wolves as were considered ‘pure’ (as opposed to hybridised with coyotes) numbered only 14, and just 5 Mexican wolves could be located. In the light of official feelings, however, the breeding and releasing programmes were not forced upon Texas but were done elsewhere.
Even though public opinion is overwhelmingly in favour of wolf reintroduction, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department remains indifferent to the issue. But sooner or later they will have to recognise that they cannot remain an island: regardless of their wishes, wolves will be bound to cross over from other states such as Arizona and New Mexico.