The Three Dogs of Yellowstone:

Canid Ecology Project, 1989-present

The reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone has been called one of the greatest conservation success stories of our time. When wolves were restored to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in 1995-96, scientists and managers made a lot of predictions but did not know what would actually happen to the ecosystem. All agreed that wolves would likely impact coyotes that had been, until then, the top dog in Yellowstone and the top predator on elk. Many predictions were made including a heavily cited 'food pyramid' developed by Time Magazine in consultation with Dr. Bob Crabtree and Yellowstone Park biologists [active link, pop-up or insert attached image]. Indeed it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn how apex carnivores would affect an ecosystem and we knew that there would be negative impacts on coyotes and elk but the potential 'chain reaction' or tropic cascade was something of a myth at the time. We had been working cooperatively with park on many projects including a model to predict how wolves would affect elk and our intensive 6 year study (1989-1995) on coyotes, the species all agreed would be impacted. The park has been studying elk for decades and we knew that continuing and expanding the coyote study would allow the wolf-coyote-elk triangle to be a window into how carnivores change ecosystems. YERC was determined to learn about how ecosystems work from this grand experiment. We knew that like the formation of the world's first national park, this too could become a model for the world.

For the two canids resident in Yellowstone, the reintroduction of gray wolves would certainly shake things up. Would it be possible that coyotes would learn to coexist with wolves and continue to thrive in the ecosystem? Or would the larger wolves would kill coyotes and drive the species from the ecosystem. On the other hand, the small group of restored wolves, having little choice in mates, could have bred with the abundant coyotes and produced a hybrid that wasn't a coyote, wasn't a wolf, and certainly didn't satisfy the recovery requirements set forth in the gray wolf recovery plan under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. What's more, little was known about how such dramatic changes would affect the smallest member of Yellowstone's canine heirarchy, it's native red fox population. As our society heralded a new century of conservation with the unprecedented restoration of a large carnivore to a natural ecosystem, we were presented with an opportunity to study the fascinating ecological relationships behind competition.

YERC was there on the slopes of Druid Peak, observing the Druid coyote pack years before the Druid wolf pack was reestablished. We were there when the wolf pens were opened and the group-yip-howls that bounced between resident coyote packs like talking drums were momentarily silenced and then followed by a six-fold increase for over a year. And we were there at the dens, counting coyote pups born into a new generation of coexistence while Yellowstone's own wolf pups were nursing in dens just across the valley. Our 20-year dataset monitoring these dynamic changes is among YERC's most valued assets. The project also provided valuable experience for the nearly 200 field technicians who tracked radio collared animals with compass and telemetry receiver, observed interaction behavior at carcass feeding sites, and collected other important data, as well as valuable insights for managers and other researchers through more than a dozen publications in peer-reviewed journals, newspaper articles and book chapters, graduate theses and dissertations, and technical reports. Its dataset continues to be used to solve real problems for coexistence as we test the ecologically flawed hypothesis behind the 20th Century's status quo coyote management strategy—still killing coyotes across the West to this day—so that lessons learned in Yellowstone can help form better policy affecting coexistence outside the park.

You can find out more about the Wild Dogs of Yellowstone (Canid Ecology Project), and how our findings have been and continue to be used to inform better understanding, better management, and better coexistence with some of nature's wiliest characters.