Author Henry H. Holdsworth/Wild by Nature Gallery
The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is one of the largest remaining, nearly intact ecosystems in the northern temperate zone of our planet. With Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks at its core, the GYE covers over 28,000 square miles, in three states and is home to over half the worlds geysers and a myriad of beautiful mountain ranges, rivers and lakes. For all the scenic beauty the area possesses, the true heartbeat of the ecosystem is measured by its abundant wildlife. And with the comeback of the grizzly bear and the reintroduction of wolves in 1995, it is the predators that have re-established Yellowstone as a truly wild place. It is a place where all the major species once again roam freely, as they did before the turn of the last century, marking the Greater Yellowstone as one of the few places in the lower 48 states where that scenario exists today.
Simply put, predators make the wilderness wild. With predators in the equation, hiking, camping and wildlife viewing are experienced on a different level than in other natural places. Your senses are heightened; your awareness of your surroundings more keen and your anticipation of what you might hear or see is more intense.
The definition of the word predator is simply stated as “an animal that naturally preys on others”. Predators come in all shapes and sizes in Yellowstone, as do the animals that they prey on, and they inhabit many different niches throughout the parks. Of course the predators at the top of the food chain, such as wolves and bears, garner much of the attention among wildlife viewers, but there are many others that go about their business in a less noticeable fashion. Eagles, osprey, pelicans and river otters all patrol the parks waterways searching for fish. Hawks, owls, coyotes and fox help keep the rodent populations in check. Kestrels, bluebirds, tanagers and swallows take in large quantities of insects such as grasshoppers and mosquitos. Seeing an elusive predator such as a mountain lion, bobcat, weasel or pine marten can really make any trip a more memorable one or a once in a lifetime experience.
Once looked at as menaces or competitors by man, predators are now known to play a vital roll in the health and balance of the natural system. Without predators to keep prey species at their natural carrying capacity, the system is soon altered and other species may suffer the consequences. Since the elimination of wolves from the area in the 1930’s, elk numbers began to grow to some four times their natural population. Outcompeting other animals for the same vegetation, other species, both plant an animal, diminished as the elk population soared. With the return of the wolf, and the subsequent decline in elk numbers, researchers have seen changes in the ecosystem that favor diversity. The growth of more cottonwood, willow and aspen have improved habitat for animals such as moose and beaver. The comeback of beavers has led to new habitat for waterfowl and songbirds. The decline of coyotes, a natural enemy of wolves, has also led to an increase in the pronghorn population and more sightings of red fox, both adversaries of coyotes. Every animal plays a part in the jigsaw puzzle we call the web of life and all the pieces need to be accounted for in order for natural cycles to run as they were intended.
It has now been twenty years since wolves were returned to Yellowstone and scientists are just beginning to discover the change this has brought to the ecosystem. After all, this top predator had been absent for almost one hundred years, and it may take another hundred years to truly understand the importance of the predators that live among us.
Henry H. Holdsworth has spent over thirty years photographing and living in the Yellowstone Ecosystem. Educated as a biologist with a background in animal behavior and environmental education, Henry has traveled extensively, but there is no place he enjoys photographing more than his own backyard, Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.
Nationally recognized for his work in such publications as National Geographic, National Wildlife and Wildlife Conservation, Henry work has also been displayed in museums such as the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. and the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson Hole. His first book on grizzlies was published in 1997, and has been followed by 16 additional photographic books on the wildlife and scenery of Yellowstone and Tetons.
Henry now divides his time between running his Wild by Nature Gallery in downtown Jackson and leading workshops for Arizona Highways Photo Workshops and photographic safaris in Grand Teton National Park.