(“Note: This post is intended to serve as the first chapter in an eBook, which is in the works. As other chapters are completed they will be posted in sequence and labeled appropriately so readers can start wherever they choose — at the beginning, or where they left off last time, or wherever their interest guides them. At present the next chapter — Vegans Can Be Like Wolves, Too — Here’s How! is under way and coming along. It will be posted as soon as it is finished.)
The reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park in 1995 has been one of the most celebrated successes we humans have taken to right the wrongs we have inflicted on Nature and the environment in recent times (maybe ever). The environmental literature and press has literally been overflowing with kudos praising that action and describing the beneficial impacts it has had on the Park’s environment.
This article is intended to expand on that list of kudos and beneficial impacts by describing what could be wolf reintroduction’s most important impact — the lesson it can teach us about how Nature functions and the role various species, including us — humans, can play within that function..
Ironically, that aspect of wolf reintroduction — the lesson it can teach us about the eco-sustaining role we can (and have) played in the environment has so far been missed by virtually all of the wolf re-intro’s celebrants.
Starting at the beginning of this story — The reason wolves had to be reintroduced into Yellowstone, along with virtually all of the American West, was because the animals had been hunted, essentially, to elimination in those areas by humans by the 1930s. That happened because these effective predators were considered a threat to animals valued by human hunters (elk and deer) and to livestock — cattle, sheep, etc..
However, as time has passed and we have become more aware of the value to us and all life of what we have come to call ”Nature” and ”the ecosystem,” the intent to restore natural-ness to as much of the planet as possible has begun to gain steam. Thus, within our premier National Park, the reintroduction of wolves came to be seen as a means to affirm and apply that awareness, especially if it achieved, as it was expected and intended to achieve, the goal of reversing the negative impacts human intervention had caused by removing wolves..
What negative impacts did the removal of wolves have on the Park and similar areas? No longer preyed upon by this apex predator, the elk population had reportedly ”exploded.” What’s more, the un-pursued un-preyed upon herds took up relatively permanent residence in the more productive and lush streamside or riparian areas within the park. These eco-oases, they over-grazed and over-browsed to the extent that other species dependent on that habitat — beavers, songbirds, etc. — began to suffer, in some cases severely. In addition, less vegetation in these areas made them more susceptible to erosion and soil loss from flooding. The removal of wolves, thus, was having the effect of hastening the deterioration and simplification of the park’s ecology and even changing its landscape.
Now comes the good news: The restoration of wolves, and the essential predator-prey functions they provide to the ecosystem of the park, has been reported by the National Park Service and environmental groups like The Nature Conservancy, among others, to have begun to reverse all of those significantly negative effects.
A Park publication (”My Yellowstone”) has declared: ”the reintroduction of wolves continues to astonish biologists with a ripple of direct and indirect consequences throughout the ecosystem.” And, ”Wolves are causing a trophic (connected) cascade of ecological change, including helping to increase beaver populations and bring back aspen, and vegetation.”
How did bringing back wolves help beavers? In a National Park Service Q & A about wolf reintroduction, Doug Smith, the project leader for the Wolf Restoration Project in Yellowstone, said, ”Because the predatory pressure from wolves keeps elk on the move, they don’t have time to intensely browse willows,” and, ”With elk on the move during the winter, willow stands recovered from intense browsing, and beaver rediscovered an abundant food source that hadn’t been there earlier.”
In other words, reintroducing wolves meant more willows, which meant more beaver”
As for streamside habitat, in a November 2018 article on the website phys.org, Robert Beschta of the Oregon State University College of Forestry, relates observations made along two forks of a creek in Yellowstone National Park, in 2004 and again in 2017. Beschta notes that canopy cover, ”which had essentially been absent in 1995, had increased to 43 percent and 93 respectively”, and ”Increases in willow height, greater canopy cover, and stream-bank stabilizing courtesy of well-vegetated banks all point toward a recovering riparian/aquatic ecosystem.”
Citing other ripples in the wolf-created ”trophic cascade,” Chris Wilmers in the on-line journal “PLOS (Public Library of Science) Biology” added that scavengers that once relied on winter-killed elk for food now depend on wolf-killed elk. This benefits ravens, eagles, magpies, coyotes and bears (grizzly and black), especially as the bears emerge hungry from hibernation.
“I call it food for the masses,” said Ed Bangs, wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He said he was genuinely surprised by the vast web of life that is linked to wolf kills. “Beetles, wolverine, lynx and more,” he said. “It turns out that the Indian legends of ravens following wolves are true-they do follow them because wolves mean food.”
These observations provide an appropriate lead-in to one of the most ironic and unexpected impacts of returning the apex predator — wolves — to the Yellowstone ecosystem. Wolf Restoration Project Leader Doug Smith notes that, by causing elk to move more and thus over-browse and over-graze less, the return of wolves has revitalized the Yellowstone ecosystem to the point where it now supports, not only more beavers, beetles, wolverine, lynx, cottonwoods, willows, berry bushes, bears, vultures, ravens, etc., but more elk — as much as three times as many.
Think about that. More wolves resulted in more elk, not less. That’s the opposite of what is supposed to happen.
And a larger elk herd, made ecologically functional by being involved in a predator-prey relationship, resulted in more vegetation, not less, — more grass, more cottonwoods, willows, and berry bushes along with more beavers, beetles, vultures, ravens, etc.
In other words, restoring the apex predator function in an ecosystem made that ecosystem more functional, more lively, more sustain-able…
Interestingly, this isn’t the first or only time Nature has offered this lesson to those of us willing to listen and learn. The lesson? That the reintroduction of an apex predator can not only create a cascade of beneficial impacts across an entire ecosystem (as wolf reintroduction appears to have done in Yellowstone) but that this cascade can include an increase in prey species..
Undoubtedly, the best way to get an actual grasp on this is to look at other instances where Nature has offered us this same lesson. How about some examples involving a very important apex predator with which we are very familiar — very, very familiar!
HUMANS AS WOLVES (AS APEX PREDATORS)?!
So, what are some situations in which humans have performed the same function as the wolves in Yellowstone — where we’ve served as apex predators and created a trophic cascade?
A number of examples come to mind. One involves Native Americans hunting the huge herds of bison that once grazed the North American Great Plains. Others involve various tribes hunting various herd animals in various places. Wildebeest in Africa, is an example familiar to most of us.
The example most available for us to study, to repeat, and to learn from, however, is ranching — a specific type of ranching whose application is expanding in the contemporary West. On this sort of ranch, livestock are managed so that they ”mimic natural herds” of native animals such as elk and bison. This is achieved by ranchers mimicking wolves (or bison hunting Indians, for that matter) by keeping the cattle bunched and moving so they don’t overgraze or over-browse, and regulating their numbers.
Studying the effects of ranching in this manner reveals that it yields most if not all of the beneficial ecological impacts wolves have been reported to have brought to Yellowstone — in some cases, more.
Getting right to comparing the two examples, the ”how” in both cases is essentially the same. When ranchers assume or mimic the role of apex predators, they bunch their cattle into herds and keep them moving, preventing the animals from staying put in a lush, tasty area, like a riparian area or a native grass meadow, and overgrazing it — as the elk were doing in Yellowstone. As a result, instead of ending up with barren, trampled, overgrazed pastures that can only be remedied by reducing the size of their herd, land managed by apex predator ranchers ends up sustaining more of whatever happens to be native to their area — ”beavers, beetles, grasses, willows, berry bushes, vultures, ravens,” or whatever — as well as more cattle.
Again, just like Yellowstone.
How long has this practice been around? Is there any way it can be called ”Natural?” And, while we’re at it, who came up with the idea of applying it via ranchers and ranching anyway?
Evidence suggests that our evolutionary ancestors have been serving the Earthly ecos as apex predators ”as far back as 2 million years.” (Hunter Gatherers History.com Editors Aug 21, 2018). That’s when, our success as hunter/predator hominins prompted our evolution into Homo Erectus, whose ”larger brains and shorter digestive systems reflected the increased consumption of meat,” It also made us ”the first hominins built for long-distance walking, pushing nomadic tribes into Asia and Europe,” and eventually into North and South America.
Here’s another interesting connection: According to a website entitled ”Wolves World” published on the www by Montgomery College in Maryland, ”Gray wolves are a very old species, with an estimated origination of its distinct special characteristics almost two million years ago.”
There’s more… ”Canis lupus (gray wolves) expanded to North America from Eurasia approximately 20,000 years ago over the Bering Land Bridge, a popular route for many expanding species.” (including Homo sapiens. Science tells us we arrived on this continent about that same time.)
We’ve got a lot more in common with wolves than you thought. Knowing that, I’m beginning to feel a lot more like part of a natural community, which is what this chapter is about.
Now, about who came up with the idea of applying humans’ evolved apex predator synergy, via the herding of livestock, as a means to restore and sustain healthy ecosystems… The one who made that connection was a Provincial Game Officer in the African nation now named Zimbabwe. On the savannas and grasslands of central Africa, Allan Savory watched grazing animals, wild and domesticated, herded by predators — both four-legged and human, interact in a synergy whose sustainability traced back millions of years. Coming to the American west, Savory worked to adapt a version of this apex predator/herd animal relationship to ranching.
As a result, people applying Savory’s insights on lands that once served as home to the apex predator/herd animal interaction involving Native Americans and herds of bison and elk have created some of the most notable ”re-naturings” witnessed anywhere. In some cases, applying this synergy has even brought life to land that was damaged to the point that it resisted all other efforts to revive it including the application of modern technology. Among those re-naturings, the most impressive involve piles of cyanide-treated copper mine waste in southern Arizona. We’ll be looking at those soon enough, (That should get you anticipating, but first…)
What does this have to do with the re-introduction of wolves into Yellowstone? That notable success may offer the best means possible to awaken us to our own role within nature as evolved apex sustainers and how natural, and ecologically important, it is for us to play that role..
As the first step in that awakening, let’s revisit the lesson that revealed to us that the removal of wolves from Yellowstone was a bad idea, and their reintroduction was a good idea.
The reason wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone was because their removal and absence appeared to have created the cascade of negative ecological impacts listed above. In fact, their reintroduction was done specifically to remedy and reverse that negative cascade.
That should raise this question among some of us… Does the removal of humans as apex predators from a Western Yellowstone-style ecosystem have a similar bad effect? Does it create a negative cascade?
One of the best examples I know of involves a streamside area similar to the one that set alarms flashing in Yellowstone. The U. S. Forest Service banned cattle grazing from a long, public lands stretch of the Verde River in central Arizona under threat of lawsuit by a couple of environmental groups, The reason? The groups contended that impacts of cows on riverside habitat was a threat to native fish, including a 3″ minnow — the spikedace, designated at the time as a ”threatened species.” (It has since been designated endangered.) How did cows threaten a fish? According to one of the groups that brought the lawsuit, livestock grazing ”eradicates vegetation, destabilizes soil, tramples stream banks, pollutes the water, and creates massive erosion.”
So, what happened when the apex predator/prey interaction applied by humans and cattle was removed from the Verde River and its spikedace habitat?
Before we see what happened on the Verde, it’s important to remember that, in Yellowstone, removing wolves was blamed for resulting in significantly less vegetation, especially in streamside areas, because of overgrazing and overbrowsing perpetrated by the now un-pursued un-preyed upon herds of elk. This, in turn, made those areas more susceptible to erosion and soil loss from flooding, which accelerated the deterioration and simplification of the park’s ecology, even changing its landscape.
Less vegetation? More erosion? Change in landscape? The following photo of the Verde River’s streamside habitat was taken in 2005, 8 years after removal of the apex predator/prey inteaction applied by humans and cattle along the Verde was completed in 1997.
How about another photo taken a little further downstream in 2016 after 11 more years of protection, 19 total.
Speaking of negative cascades — notice the condition of the spikedace in the above photo…
In Yellowstone, the reduction in vegetation attributed to the removal of wolves was determined to have a negative impact on other species — beavers, songbirds, etc. — which suffered, in some cases severely.
On the Verde? One of the largest known populations of the 3″ native minnow, the spikedace, had thrived in that river during more than 100 years of cattle ranching. These fish, which had been designated a threatened species, were supposed to benefit from the removal of grazing. What happened when the apex predator interaction between humans and cattle was removed?— Spikedace numbers in the Verde dropped to zero! No survivors of this “threatened species” have been detected in this habitat, where they were once native, since cattle removal was completed in the late 1990s.
The Endangered Species Act so far has prohibited restoration of the apex predator/herd animal prey interaction involving humans and livestock to the Verde, as it was done in Yellowstone. However, there is an area on the Verde where the this interaction (i. e. predator/prey via ranching) has not been removed and, thus, continues to function.
Let’s see how that has fared…
What you have just seen is so contradictory to conventional wisdom, I know the thought is running through your head that this is a fluke or a bunch of photoshopped images.
To get past that, you can go to a number of other examples available for your viewing on this website (There’s lots of them, Go back to RightWayToBeGreen and click on the ones that interest you.) Plus, I’m continuing to collect new examples which will eventually be included here, too. Some of these examples and others are included in my two books: Beyond the Rangeland Conflict, Toward a West That Works, and Gardeners of Eden, Rediscovering Our Importance To Nature. You can go there for more evidence and interpretation.
But let’s get to the main point of all this:
If reintroducing wolves as apex predators to fulfill ecological functions and restore ecosystems achieves so much success and enjoys so much support, why does reintroducing humans to do the same thing receive so much opposition? Especially, when the latter creates as much success as wolf reintroduction (actually in some cases, more) and does it in ways that are essentially the same —more vital plant community, more biodiversity, more stability, more sustain-ability?
SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE? (or THE TWILIGHT ZONE)
To give you an idea of the degree and extent of that opposition, here are some comments from a higher-up in one of the environmental groups that succeeded in getting grazing removed from along the Verde to ”save” the spikedace.
”Cows have hugely damaged Western rivers,” the higher-up is quoted in a January 2019 article in AZCENTRAL (part of the USA Today network). ”There is no place for cows in the arid West,… None of our rivers evolved with cows. They have nothing to offer.”
Citing the removal of cattle from along another Arizona River in the late 1980s… the higher-up said, ”(W)e removed cows. That’s why we’ve had recovery, And that’s why it’s so offensive that they would even think about trying to put them back… That’s insane.”
Last but not least, the higher-up compared the idea of using cattle to restore the health of a western river’s ecosystem to ”a sketch on Saturday Night Live’.”
The above photo was taken on the U Bar Ranch near Silver City, New Mexico in 2004 for my book Gardeners of Eden. I’ve added the image of an ”endangered species” bird (Southwestern Willow Flycatcher) as well as a spikedace, which was re-designated as endangered in 2012, for the following reason…
In a report dated 02/23/2012, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stated, ”Under (current owner of the U Bar…) FMC’s past and current management, portions of the Gila River and Mangas Creek continue to support the largest numbers of spikedace and loach minnow (another endangered fish) in their range.” (At this point it is worth noting that the U Bar Ranch is also cited as home to one of the largest known populations of an endangered songbird — the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher.)
Based on those determinations, USFW concluded that the U Bar’s management provides benefits to spikedace, loach minnow (and Southwestern Willow Flycatcher) that are equivalent to those that would be provided by critical habitat designation.
In other words grazing the way the U Bar does it sustains endangered fish as effectively as protection. Comparing the results the U Bar’s has achieved on the Gila — largest numbers of spikedace and loach minnow in their range — to those achieved by environmental groups on the Verde — zero for both fish… I would say the U Bar’s ”humans as apex predator” management, applied by long term ranch manager David Ogilvie, is significantly more effective than protection.
Ironically, just as I finished learning the above, I was told something by one of the scientists I’ve been working with that convinced me to agree that this chain of events would quality as something from Saturday Night Live (or The Twilight Zone). I learned that the same groups (including Mr. Higher-Up) who removed human apex predator function (ranching) from along the Verde River In Arizona, which was followed by disappearance of the spikedace, are sueing to remove ranching from along the Gila, too. That would include the U Bar.
I’ll bet you can figure out what that means for some of the largest populations of various endangered species in the West…
That should give us a true idea who is the real friend of spikedace, loach minnow, Southwestern Willow Flycatcher, and plenty of other critters in the American West today.
Maybe we do need to reintroduce apex predator function by ranchers across more of the West!