Grant backs wolf research

The $1.4 million donation will support a study of the wolf population.

Vincent Staupe

A recent anonymous donation has ensured that University graduate students can study wolves in Yellowstone National Park for the next 10 years.

The donation to the University’s fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology department and the Yellowstone Park Foundation is a unique and important gift, said interim department head Francesca Cuthbert.

“Not only will it contribute to wolf conservation, it will train a number of graduate students in the field of wildlife conservation,” he said.

The $1.4 million donation, which will be split between the University and the Yellowstone Park Foundation, was given by a Colorado philanthropist familiar to adjunct professor and U.S. Geological Survey senior scientist L. David Mech.

“The $1 million went to the Yellowstone Park Foundation to further the wolf research in the park,” Mech said.

The remaining $400,000 will be spent on graduate students who will study gray wolf repopulation in Yellowstone.

According to Mech, wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone around 1995, after their numbers sharply declined. Among other reasons, destruction of their habitat and hunting warranted their placement on the endangered species list.

“Because they were endangered and are being recovered, that’s why people are interested in studying them,” he said.

Mech, who makes the trip to Yellowstone about twice a year, said recent University studies in the park have focused on elk and other prey of the wolf. The elk were fitted with radio trackers that emitted a signal upon the animal’s death. Researchers then tracked down the animal to determine if it was killed by a wolf.

The University is creating a four-year project to study the effect of disease on the Yellowstone wolf population.

Wildlife ecology and management graduate student Emily Almberg, who was chosen for the position to be directly funded by the donation, will be one of the researchers studying the effects of disease in the park.

“The goal is to study diseases in the wolves and other carnivores,” she said. “There were some big mortality events among pups and disease was highly suspected.”

When she applied to the University, Almberg, a graduate of Swarthmore College, was working as a biological technician in Yellowstone, studying the post-reintroduction of the wolves.

Almberg said Yellowstone offers a good place to study the wolves due to researchers’ “hands-off approach” to wildlife management.

“There’s active research on how the system operates as a natural ecosystem largely unaffected by humans,” Almberg said.

Though the goal of the study is to determine what kinds of diseases are present in the Yellowstone ecosystem, Almberg said there are limits on how the research will be conducted.

“It’s not really a situation where we would propose going in and instituting a mass vaccination unless it was a really serious threat or if it was human-induced,” she said.

Almberg said the donation is important, particularly because funding for wildlife studies can be difficult to attain.

“It’s really a wonderful opportunity,” she said. “I do not take it for granted.”