By Jessianne Castle EBS Contributor
LIVINGSTON – Five captive-born gray wolves and seven grizzly bears captured from the wild roam several large outdoor enclosures at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone. Unable to be reintroduced into the wild, the bears and wolves provide visitors with an opportunity to closely observe their behavior and learn about their role in the ecosystem.
Beginning this spring, visitors will get a glimpse of a more complete story of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem with the completion of a new riparian exhibit that explores the interconnected relationships of animals and plants.
Currently under development, the North American River Otter Riparian Exhibit will be a complex system of ponds, streams and terrain, complete with river-bed vegetation and an underwater viewing area for river otters, cutthroat trout and Arctic grayling. Accompanied by the wolves and bears, visible just outside, this exhibit will demonstrate the diverse relationships between predators, prey and habitats.
“We’re trying to show how everything is inter-related,” said Director John Heine.
According to Heine, research in Yellowstone has revealed an important trophic cascade between wolves and riparian vegetation. Prior to wolf reintroduction in 1995, plants like willow and aspen were over-grazed, he said. However, once on the landscape, wolves began to reduce the burgeoning elk population. This in turn allowed riparian areas to grow back and flourish.
“Most ecosystems are best when they’re balanced,” said Yellowstone National Park biologist Doug Smith in an undated National Park Service broadcast. Smith is the project leader for the Wolf Restoration Project. “Ecologists refer to this as biodiversity but emphasize the word diverse. Having a lot of different kinds of things at moderate numbers is better than having a lot of any one thing.
“Prior to wolf recovery, we had a lot of elk, we had a lot of coyotes, and we had very little things like willow and aspen, and songbirds and beaver,” Smith added. “And so, [with] the entry of wolves and other carnivores—because bears have increased and cougars have come back too—so now we’re a carnivore-rich system and we’ve restored that top layer of the system.”
In addition to viewing otters and fish, visitors to the new exhibit will see invertebrates and amphibians, and learn how the introduction of lake trout has affected cutthroat populations.
Currently, the center houses seven grizzly bears that were captured in the wild after becoming nuisance bears or orphaned cubs. However, with the development of additional bear habitat, the center would be able to house at least eight additional bears, though Heine said he wouldn’t expect to fill those spaces with resident bears. Instead, he said they might be able to take in a couple black bears and then use the remaining space to temporarily house bears that are awaiting placement at other facilities. Funds for this new development came from a variety of grants and donations, as well as admission fees, and while the riparian exhibit is nearing completion, Heine said the center is still raising funds for a new outdoor bear habitat and bear dens.
A completion date has not been set for this new bear structure, but Heine said by the end of this summer, the utilities, plumbing, concrete and structural steel should be in place.
The Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center is open 365 days a year and because bears are offered food regularly, Heine said they don’t hibernate, though their metabolism does slow down. During the winter, the center is open from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and admission is good for two days.
Visit grizzlydiscoveryctr.org to learn more.