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Wolves Matter. Technology Shows Us Why - Without Wolves, Alaska's Denali Wilderness Ecosystem Could Collapse. So Scientists Track Their Every Movement.

posted Apr 9, 2019, 8:25 PM by chloe owens

11/2/2018, by Megan Wollerton, CNET

Wolves matter. Technlogy shows us why - Without wolves, Alaska’s Denali wilderness ecosystem could collapse. So scientists track their every movement.

…Borg and Klauder monitor Denali's wolves for the NPS, part of the service's 32-year-long wolf research project. That's no small feat in an area bigger than New Hampshire. The NPS spends roughly $125,000 a year monitoring wolves in Denali. The software and equipment used to track the wolves "is the biggest chunk of our funding on that particular project," says Patricia Owen, a wildlife biologist with the Denali National Park and Preserve. Why spend six figures a year to monitor wolves? It's because wolves are a keystone species. Take away the wolf, and the entire Denali ecosystem could change — which is just what happened in the 1920s, when federal and local governments eradicated the gray wolf in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Elk populations exploded. Overgrazing dramatically reduced the number of seeds, wetland plants and other food sources that fish, birds and other species depended on. And because elk had gobbled up the seeds and saplings that would have grown into trees, lake and river temperatures rose from lack of shade. In contrast, Denali has remained largely untouched by humans. For biologists, the 6-million-acre park (including 2.2 million acres of federally designated wilderness) serves as a kind of living laboratory. Monitoring how animals interact shows scientists how the pieces of its ecological puzzle work and fit together. "Wolves matter because they represent a true wild," Doug Smith, Yellowstone National Park senior wildlife biologist, tells me. "Real nature has to have all the parts." Borg and Klauder made this same trek the previous September to set up motion-detecting, heat-sensing cameras in the hope of capturing images of a wolf pack in and around its den. Now I'm following them back to retrieve the SD cards inside the tree-mounted cameras — and to look at a year's worth of footage for the first time…The maps show dots — color-coded by pack — representing dozens of wolves in clusters on the screen. According to the most recent count, the smallest pack contains only two wolves; the largest has 17. The average pack has six or seven.