Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A "Keystone Species”

"Located on K Q Ranch road off the Sunrise Highway."

Just a simple statement of the directions to the California Wolf Center as noted in a feature entitled "The Many Joys of Julian" in the October 13 edition of the San Diego Union-Tribune.

The article continued: "For a more secluded country excursion, you can reach (Julian) by going on Interstate 8 east to Route 79 north."

Since Sunrise Highway intersected Route 79 about four miles south of Julian, we thought we had time for a few photographs from the only turnout on the winding two-lane Highway 79.

From the Desert View overlook, we had these views of, well,...the desert.

We were also able to get a photograph of the effects of a fire that had swept through a portion of this hilllside (below).

Back on 79, we turned onto Sunrise Highway and headed toward...Mt. Laguna. (Now when I had called the Wolf Center to make reservations, I did not remember anything about Sunrise Highway.) After a few miles, we turned around--no easy task on a two-lane mountain road--and headed back to 79. Heading north for two miles, we found the K Q Ranch Road and soon the lane to the Center.

We were told to meet at the lane and then proceed as a group to the Center. We thought this procedure was a safety precaution--and more than likely it was. However,...after a half-mile drive up and down the most uneven, rut-filled, underbody-scraping gravel road imaginable, we understood the reason for collecting the entrance fee first and maintaining a single-file caravan (from which "escape" was impossible) to the Center.

But, all 50+ arrived in surprisingly good spirits and attended a short introduction to the Center's mission and inhabitants.

Chelsea, our guide on a tour of two of the wolf populations, provided an excellent conversational discussion about the wolves and easily wove answers to questions into her presentation.

The two groups of wolves (the Alaskan gray wolf [first three photos below]and the Mexican gray wolf [last three photos]) we met are the "educational group wolves" and will not be re-introduced into their natural environment; other wolves at the Center have no contact with humans and will be re-introduced into the native environments of their species.

We had not heard the description of wolves as a "keystone species” until our visit.

Time magazine Jan.’98, reported, ”...An ecosystem stripped of the wolf doesn’t simply become more peaceable; rather, it becomes flabby and unbalanced.” With the dominant predator gone, the next biggest hunter-typically the coyote-assumes the top spot. As the coyote population explodes, the populations of foxes, badgers and martens, which compete with coyotes for rodents and other small game, dwindle. Large prey such as elk, which were once brought down by wolves, begin to multiply excessively, stripping vegetation from highlands, and denuding riparian habitat of valuable stream side cover such as aspen and willow. And with few elk carcasses to be found, scavengers like magpies, ravens and grizzly bears, accustomed to dining on scraps from wolf kills, have to scrounge elsewhere for protein.

The impact of the return of this key predator to Yellowstone is now apparent: elk kills are common, providing plenty of left-overs for other animals to scavenge; the coyote population has been reduced by fifty percent, opening up ecological “breathing room” for foxes and other species, e.g., fawns of pronghorn antelopes, highly favored by coyotes.

Even riparian and highland vegetation, no longer over-grazed by hungry elk, is expected to start making a comeback. Willow and aspen growth is flourishing. The woody riparian habitat provides nesting and roosting spots for migrating songbirds, shade over the rivers that keep temperatures cool and favorable for juvenile fish, roots that add stability to streambanks from erosion, and woody material used by beavers to construct dams.

The Alaskan gray wolves had names like Inuk, Chaco, and Kiana, but the Mexican grays had numbers--F1046 and F892.

The Mexican wolf is one of the rarest land mammals in the world, with fewer than 50 individuals in the wild. The Center participates in the Mexican Wolf Species Survival Plan, playing a role as a breeding facility and currently hosting sixteen endangered Mexican wolves each of whom has a registered number.

The wolves made brief appearances for us and then went about other activities in the large living space.

We had hoped to photograph the wolves' penetrating eyes. We are considering signing up for the opportunity to accompany a staff member to photograph the wolves for two hours--inside the enclosure.

Next year.

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