University at Buffalo instructor and Kenmore East science teacher Joseph Allen brought his Ecology of Unique Environments class to Wyoming last August. For about 14 days, 14 students, including two teaching assistants, observed the wolves and bears in Yellowstone National Park and backpacked in the Wind River Range, outside of Lander, Wyo.
For four days of the trip, the group camped in Yellowstone and observed the wolves and bears from miles away through telescopes while working with biologist Rick McIntyre, who studies the behavior of the animals.
Allen received this opportunity for his class simply by calling biologist Doug Smith, who has been in charge of the wolf re-introductory project at Yellowstone since 1996.
"I called him up ... and told him that I had been following his program for the last 15 years or so, and he invited me. It was that quick. So I jumped at it," Allen said.
The wolf re-introductory program was initiated during the Clinton administration. In the 1920s, wolves disappeared from Yellowstone as a result of pressures from ranchers and farmers.
The last wolf was shot out of Yellowstone in 1927.
Starting in 1966, the idea of re-introducing wolves to Yellowstone was brought to Congress by biologists. They were concerned with the out-of-control elk population and lack of new vegetation.
Wolves are apex predators that are at the top of the food chain. Wolves are key to preventing ecosystem instability and population booms of species lower on the pyramid in Yellowstone.
"It's an unbelievably huge project. It's not just throwing a few wolves back in and seeing what happens," Allen says. "Wolves are spreading, they're taking back their rightful place in the ecosystem, they're returning to a more normal status. There were so many elk and so many deer that basically the vegetation did not have a yearly chance to recover. The wolves have reduced their numbers, changed the structure of the ecosystem and in doing so, returned it to what it was before us ... [before] humans messed it up."
Josh Hysert, 29, a Kenmore East graduate who is an environmental resources major at UB and one of Allen's teaching assistants, explained what it was like seeing the wolves and bears.
"I grew up seeing these things in movies and reading about them in books," Hysert said. "It would have been reasonable to assume I never would have ever seen either of those two species, but then I saw them over day after day and throughout the day. I didn't just see them in a cage at the zoo, I saw them out there in the wild, and it wasn't just one walking by, it was more like five, eight grizzly bears feeding on a bison's carcass and wolves chasing an elk."
For the other 10 days of the trip, the group backpacked the Wind River Range.
The students were required to keep journals and running tallies of species spotted. They also had a paper to write at the end of the trip. But for the most part, it was a self-directed type of class.
Allen hopes his Ecology of Unique Environments class understands the simplicity of being in nature after going on this trip.
"I think that is what's totally lacking in our culture today -- immersion in a natural system," said Allen.
Hysert also went to Wyoming on a backpacking trip in 2003 with Allen. Hysert has known Allen since 1995 when he was a student at Kenmore East and joined the Wilderness Club. He credits Allen for his return to school after not attending for seven years.
One thing Allen wants to bring to his Ways of the Wilderness class at Kenmore East and others is this: "I want to make sure that people know that wolves aren't these heartless killers -- they have a significant impact -- and use that in my teaching and use scientific literature to back it up."
Ashley Yager is a senior at Kenmore East High School.