Monday, March 7, 2016

Gray wolves have a lesson to teach

Posted By on Mon, Mar 7, 2016 at 5:47 PM

Gray wolves represent the beauty and brutality of nature in a way that few animals can.

With their thick coats, pricked ears, and sharp eyes, they're visually striking. And the cooperative precision they use to stalk and take down prey — often the weak or the young — is both captivating and horrific. (This clip from BBC's Planet Earth franchise shows that skill quite well, but do not watch it if you are easily upset.)

Seneca Park Zoo just added two gray wolves to its exhibits; they've taken their place in the former Mexican gray wolf enclosure, across from the Amur tigers. The zoo regularly transfers animals in from other zoos — Willow and Timber come via the Buffalo Zoo — just as it transfers animals to other zoos and conservation facilities. The Mexican gray wolves, which are part of a federal endangered species protection program, were recently sent to wolf sanctuaries, and one is being paired with a potential mate.

But the gray wolves present a big opportunity for the zoo, because their recent history is also New York's history. 
Wolves are apex predators, and they play a key role in keeping certain animal populations in check; white tail deer is the notable one here. 

Gray wolves used to live all over the United States, including in New York, but by 1900 the species had been driven out of most of its historic range. Habitat loss was a big factor, as was persecution: wolves were killed in large numbers because livestock farmers saw them as threats to their herds. The same story played out for a few species as New York grew, including the eastern cougar. (Gray wolves are listed as endangered species in much of the country.)

The wolves present a very relevant example of how humans can decimate a species, often without realizing the consequences. With its new wolves, the Seneca Park Zoo is in a good position to share the cautionary tale with visitors.

New York probably won't get natural populations of gray wolves back, and if it does they'll probably be limited to the Adirondacks. The nearest natural population is in Canada.

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