HOWL Colorado

Editorial: Nature Misunderstood

Does anyone else find it odd that the researchers on Isle Royale found the results to one of their most recent studies – wolves and moose improve biodiversity – to be unexpected?

I did not find the results to be at all surprising.

Animal corpses turn in to biological waste which decomposes into the necessary nutrients for local flora to flourish. The plant life provides the necessary nutrients for herbivores to survive. The herbivores provide the necessary nutrients through predation to carnivores. Carnivores die, decompose and, in turn, feed the plants, which feeds the herbivores, and so the cycle goes on.

The Isle Royale study was impressive in that they were able to get enough data to prove the assumptions. However, the descriptions of the results as surprising or unexpected left me wondering. How deep is the overall misunderstanding of nature?

Obviously, on pretty general observation, the depth of the misunderstanding is pretty extensive.

The wolves, for which I fight, are in the position they are in because they are very misunderstood, along with the ecosystem they are a part of.

Ranchers believe wolves want to eat their livestock. So deeply do they believe this, that wolves were eradicated almost entirely during the last century.

The facts, however, are contradictory to this position. Wolves don’t particularly like to feed on livestock. When an ample supply of their natural prey is available, they don’t hunt sheep or cattle. Certain measures can be taken to make livestock even less appealing to wolves.

Statistically, wolves kill a very small percentage of livestock, even when compared to other predators.

Hunters, for what I am sure are completely altruistic reasons, fear that predators have an unhealthy impact on the numbers of large game animals.

Again, the facts challenge this perception.

Wolves in Minnesota reportedly account, according to the International Wolf Center, for an estimated 50,000 (I took the middle estimate) deer predations per year. Human hunters, for the sake of comparison, killed more than 250,000 deer in the state in 2007. If the deer population can’t handle the 50,000 estimated that wolves prey on, then one would assume they really can’t handle the 250,000 killed by human hunters.

Since deer and wolves co-existed for millennia, one assumes also that a balance exists where where deer aren’t hunted to extinction and wolves didn’t run out of food. There is no specific study which can prove this of course. The criteria to test the hypothesis is hard to reproduce. Though the fact that there were wolves, and there were deer, and both existed when we started noticing, certainly gives the assumption some strong substance on which to be based. There is, of course, one additional variable – as highlighted above – which would be hard to remove from the equation.

So, it seems that the hunter statement “predators have an unhealthy impact on the numbers of large game animals” can at least be challenged on the grounds that they kill significantly more of the said game animals than any natural predator. The bias of the statement of course … is for another editorial at another time.

Of course, Isle Royale is a place in transition. Wildlife management officials use the long-running study to justify their positions and decisions quite regularly. The study is remarkable. Over 50 years of observation regarding wolves and moose in an extensive predator vs. prey investigation has yielded a lot of information. Oddly they elect not to use the Isle Royale results when the results don’t suit the needs. Yellowstone National Park wolves are at high risk of becoming genetically isolated. When the Isle Royale study suggested a small gene pool was not a significant problem for wolves, it was the poster child for wildlife management policy. Now that it is clear that the animals on Isle Royale are in significant trouble, with genetic defects of the spine, disasterously dwindling numbers and a need for human intervention to overcome natural deselection, the study is apparently irrelevent.

Combine with this a strong desire which many have to deny even the slightest connection to nature, and it becomes clear just how deep a gap has formed.

So to answer the initial question: How deep is the misunderstanding of nature?

Deep.

However, such a gap in understanding can be overcome.

What may be harder to achieve, however, is generating the interest in people to care enough to change their perceptions and acknowledge their connection to the world around them instead of insulating themselves and imagining simple solutions – such as killing all wolves – will actually work.

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