Thursday, March 6, 2014

What does the wolf say? (About human effects on climate)

What does the Wolf say?
In discussions about the human-caused climate crisis, I sometimes see an odd argument: that the world is too large for tiny humans to change a major system like climate. I always find this to be a strange assertion, and the Yellowstone wolves illustrate why.
Early in the 20th century, wolves were extirpated from Yellowstone National Park in the American northwest, as part of widespread general anti-wolf campaigns. Not long after, it became clear the wolf was an important part of the park ecosystem, as the elk rapidly multiplied and overgrazed the vegetation. Park management resorted to trapping, moving, and eventually killing elk to preserve the rest of the park. Eventually they killed too many and stopped, then the elk resurged, and the problem recurred.
The idea grew to restore wolves to naturally control elk. In 1995 and 1996, 31 wolves brought from Canada were released in the park. With plentiful prey, their numbers grew, exceeding 100 before stabilizing. Killing about 22 elk per wolf each year, they not only reduced elk population, they also changed herd behaviour, pushing them back from open riverbanks into less favourable habitats and even naturally reducing their birth rate. Many other changes in predator and prey relationships followed: wolves hunted and reduced the overpopulated coyote pack, which led to a resurgence of foxes; wolves pushed cougars back to the high mountain slopes; wolf kills became food for a variety of other scavenging species. Changes in predation of birds and small animals in turn affected the roots, buds, seeds and insects they ate, allowing the natural flora to re-establish and the beavers to return.
The restored vegetation strengthened the soil. Rivers that had eroded their banks and meandered returned to flowing straighter courses. That’s right, as a direct result of the introduction of 31 wolves, mighty rivers actually changed their courses and flows! The transformations of physical geography are extensive and ongoing. You can watch a wonderful short video on this here.
How can so few wolves cause such big changes, just by doing what comes naturally? Quite simply, all things are connected in a living web; whatever we do affects everything else. We humans may feel disconnected but we’re not, and one person’s actions, magnified by modern technology and multiplied by 7 billion people can distort that web, especially when we all lean in the same direction.
Every year our species adds nearly 35 billion tonnes of additional greenhouse gasses to our atmosphere. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, we’ve increased atmospheric carbon levels from about 280 parts per million to 400, and are on course to have doubled it within a few more decades.
In addition to putting all this fossil carbon into the air, we’ve cleared continents of forests, washed eons of topsoil into oceans, removed entire species from existence as we either hunt them or push them out of their habitat, extending our reach from miles underground to the edge of space and beyond. How can anyone believe we can stretch or cut all those ties and not affect the planet’s life-support systems in profound ways?
We are the first and only species to comprehend the pervasive effects of our personal, national, and global actions. We have a solemn duty to understand how, and modify our behaviour to enhance the web of life, not degrade it. For our own sake, if nothing else.
Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Modifying our behaviour will spare the web of life"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation

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