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Gardens of the Cross Timbers: In the company of the wolf

Becky Emerson Carlberg
Contributing writer
Next step of Barn Quilt: varnish

The introduction of Shawnee Public Schools on Facebook begins with “For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.” Rudyard Kipling.  The school mascot is the wolf.  The wolf that arrived in 1968 peers at students from its glass cage inside the school.

Wolves are top dogs in the predator world.  The wolf is considered a vital keystone species.  The packs have much larger impact on the environment than their individual numbers would indicate. Packs range in size from 2 to 36 wolves.

Shawnee High School Mascot

The gray wolf did live in Oklahoma.  In 1718, Frenchman de la Harpe traveled through Muskogee County and watched a bison herd being followed by a pack of wolves as large as those in France.  French explorer Brevel saw wolves in the Wichita Mountains in 1765. In 1820, adventurer Long wrote of wolf packs following bison along the Canadian River in central Oklahoma.  In 1832, Count de Pourtales accompanied Washington Irving on his ‘Tour of the Prairies’ and wrote “I was awakened once or twice by the concert of wolves, who howled in the thicket about 20 paces from me.”  Their camp was near the Canadian River south of Ft. Gibson.  

Gray wolves were still in Oklahoma in 1900, but extirpated (locally eradicated) by the 1930’s.  The last hold-outs were in the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, as if being in a refuge helped.  Gray wolves had also been largely exterminated in Europe in the early 1900’s.  The new ranchers in the Yellowstone region assumed wolves attacked their cattle, sheep and people.  They blamed the wolf for all their problems without taking into account the health, weather, birthing and theft problems their livestock experienced. The ever-increasing numbers of pioneers knew nothing about these shy animals trying to avoid human confrontations as they attempted to adapt to altered and destroyed habitats.  Every wolf found was shot and killed.

By 1872, gray wolf numbers were severely decreasing in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, the states in the Yellowstone area.  Under the brutal government predator control program, Northern Rocky Mountain wolves, a subspecies of the gray wolf, were terminated in Yellowstone National Park in the early 1900’s with the last wolves killed in 1926.  The gray wolf was listed as endangered in 1967. Everybody happy?  

The elk population exploded.  Plant diversity and communities decreased.  Erosion developed into a serious problem.  Aspens and cottonwoods were being demolished by over-grazing. The park service began trapping and killing the elk.  This lasted over 30 years.  After that control method failed, the elk population rose again.  Coyotes, formerly kept in check by wolves, increased and that affected the pronghorn antelope populations.

Wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone in 1995.  Deer and elk, delectable prey of the wolf, became less of a problem.  Trees grew four times taller and grasslands were regenerated.  Riverbanks subject to intense erosion by grazing herds of elk became stabilized. Interestingly, the fragmented populations of big horn sheep remained fairly stable. The coyote society was restructured.  Foxes, usually controlled by coyotes, increased.  This in turn affected hares, young deer and rodents in some areas, but in other places numbers of weasels, badgers and hawks surged.  Local plant communities were influenced all the way down to soil organisms.  Grizzly bears increased as did their favorite foods: serviceberry, chokecherry, huckleberry and other berry plants.  Bird diversity expanded.

Watch this: https://www.nationalgeographic.org/media/wolves-yellowstone/

Yellowstone National Park was established in 1872 to protect the geysers and hot springs of the area.  As the West developed, Yellowstone became a refuge for wildlife.  Wild bison have lived here since prehistoric times and continue to migrate from their summer grounds to lower elevations as winter approaches. We’re talking 5,000 of the largest mammals that live in North America!  

Yellowstone encompasses several habitats: alpine tundra with rocky dry treeless mountain areas, grasslands, and mountain meadows full of wildflowers.  Elevations range from 6,000 to 11.000 feet above sea level.  The diversity is enormous.  Wolves are making a comeback as the plants, wildlife and habitats are being reshaped into a more balanced sustainable landscape.  

Their future, as well as Earth’s, are in our hands.  Daunting.  The same people currently dealing with a worldwide virus that has roots in environmental destruction and animal displacement. Other than isolating yourself from unseen disease-causing organisms, have you thought how you could help restore nature?  As seen with the wolf, the repercussions of messing with life cycles extends well past houses, stores and gas stations.  Unlike sterile man-made constructs, the existing wildlife habitats also contain living, breathing organisms. They may well embody the spiritual connection we sorely need.

Monarch on Zinnia

What to do.  Do not chop down and remove the blooming sunflowers as one Shawnee restaurant did.  The sunflowers took advantage of the lax gardening during the initial stages of the coronavirus and grew tall with branches full bright yellow flowers.  Butterflies and bees arrived in abundance since few flowering plants could grow in the developed area.  When it was time to tidy up the place, the healthy robust sunflowers were pulled out, leaving only wide strips of barren gravel.  The business could have used the sunflowers as a shining example of how to save even volunteer patches of nature. Heck, the plants were growing behind their building, not even at the front. The vibrant vital sunflowers were far more attractive than the beds of dead rocks. The sunflower is one of Mexico’s gifts to the world.  Ironic this was a south-of-the-border type restaurant.

Blister Beetles devouring the cherry tomato

I would love to point out other places, but a large black antlike beetle sitting in a jar on the lazy Susan had a note underneath: “Go check the cherry tomatoes.”   

The tomato vines look good. Too good. Where are the leaves?  Clinging to the remaining photosynthetic organs were twelve of the black insects.  Dozens had already been extinguished, said the note.  Invasion of the blister beetles.  I must say they have not been a problem until now.  Gloves are necessary to pick off the beetles.  These toxic insects contain cantharidin.  Not only does this chemical cause blistering, but is so potent it was used to treat pox virus lesions and still found in wart removal products!  Blister beetle favorite foods are garden plants, commercial crops and even bales of hay.  Hand picking, trimming the growth around gardens and diatomaceous earth can control the beetles.  This time of the year I would not recommend Spinosad, a biological insecticide produced by soil bacteria.  It also kills the beneficial insects (butterflies, bees).

Herd of Bison

Note:  the more grasshoppers, the more likely blister beetles.  On the positive side, blister beetle larvae eat grasshopper eggs.  

Birds eat blister beetles.

Dinner time!

Becky Emerson Carlberg, graduate of Oklahoma State (Plant Pathology) is a teacher, artist, writer as well as certified Oklahoma Master Gardener and Master Naturalist. Contact her at Becscience@att.net.