by Lee Foster
The return of wolves to Yellowstone and the proliferation of humpback whales in Alaska are two main antidotes to environmental pessimism that I personally experienced.
Occasionally there is encouraging environmental news as I travel around the planet. There are a few situations in which we, the human animal, are showing good stewardship. Experiencing this good news first-hand is one of the pleasures of travel.
In Yellowstone I stood one morning in June at 6 a.m. on a certain promontory, Rendezvous Hill, as any traveler can, and looked out over the vast and lush Lamar Valley with a powerful spotting telescope. I was actually able to see a cluster of wolves, part of the Druid Peak pack, in the distance. An informal group of about 50 “wolf watchers,” with spotting scopes on tripods, savored the sightings on that particular morning.
Introducing gray wolves back into Yellowstone is a major environmental success story. The original 41 Canadian gray wolves released by the National Park Service into Yellowstone in 1995-1996 have flourished. By spring 2004 the official Park Service biologists estimated there were 174 gray wolves in Yellowstone. By 2014 the wolf population in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem was estimated between 400-450.
As I watched the wolves, I had the benefit of insights from Shauna Baron of the Yellowstone Institute. She is one of the main wolf watchers. A biologist, she guides people in the Institute’s nature-based tourism programs.
“Wolves cause a lot of positive subtle effects here in the Yellowstone ecosystem,” said Shauna Baron. “For example, in the spring, when a male grizzly bear comes out of hibernation and is desperate for food, he may happen upon a fresh elk kill, done by the wolves, but now available to the grizzly. It may assist him in surviving.”
I remember my earlier visits to Yellowstone, when there were no wolves here and the hope of bringing them back, as a check on the elk population, among other benefits, seemed like a long shot. Over time, this remarkable feat has been achieved.
On a parallel trip, one July, I was fortunate enough to be at Point Adolphus near Glacier Bay, Alaska, and then spent some time in Glacier Bay National Park. I saw hundreds of endangered humpback whales cavorting about, rolling their characteristic arched backs before diving, slapping the water with their large pectoral fins, feeding voraciously on a small crustacean, known as krill, and on small bait fish. On a dozen occasions I saw a humpback breaching, thrusting its long, stocky body skyward, out of the water.
On that visit I benefited from the insights of a local naturalist, National Park Service Ranger Laura Congdon, whose territory is Glacier Bay National Park.
“There were only about 1,000 humpbacks in this North Pacific herd in 1966,” said Laura Congdon. “Today there may be 21,000 animals. They may be taken off the endangered list.”
As we watched a whale breach dramatically, she made a further observation.
“It is sometimes said that the muscle in the tail of a humpback whale is the most powerful muscle on earth,” Laura Condon noted. “Think of the thrust required to send a 45-ton body skyward, sometimes almost clearing the water.”
I remember my first visits to Southeast Alaska in the 1980s, when seeing one humpback was a major event. The survival of the humpback was a chancy matter. Somehow, we, as the human species, got our behavioral act together and stopped the killing of this species and allowed their numbers to climb back.
These were the two highpoints of my journeys as a travel writer. We have increased the range of wolves in North America to at least another small part of their historical range. And we have enabled the humpback to climb back to stable numbers.
Our collective human species has had a major adverse effect on all the animals with whom we share the planet, especially in the last hundred years as so many species have gone extinct. Every person who chooses to inform themselves knows the story. At least, in the good news about the wolves and the humpbacks, I could savor some small personal antidotes to environmental pessimism.