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MI: Wolves in Ecosystems Part 3

In wilderness ecological functions can maintain natural processes with limited human influence. Human activity in non-wilderness areas results in significant disruptions. Society does not maintain many large intact wilderness areas but those that do exist allow species to go about their business. Such areas allow scientists to study ecological nature niches to learn how ecosystems function. George Monbiot wrote about the role of wolves driving trophic cascades that cause changes from top carnivores down. I outlined in part 2 of my series how hares caused plants to die to the ground causing hares to starve and that in turn caused top predators to starve.

No one species drives all major events in ecosystems but individual species do drive major changes. Overriding physical influences such as global climatic change and pollution have impacts making it difficult to determine how even “pristine” environments function unhampered. It is an over simplification to attribute credit or blame to a single species. The hypothesis about how trophic cascading works in nature is a self-correcting study in progress.

After writing parts 1 & 2 about social, political, and ecological aspects of wolves in ecosystems, L. David Mech, a world-renowned wolf researcher wrote me regarding trophic cascades and human views towards wolves. Dave has conducted wolf research on Isle Royale and has been involved in biological and social aspects of wolf study across the continent since 1958. My articles were reasonably accurate. There are aspects that could use clarification. It is an enormous challenge to adequately discuss a topic in short space. George Monbiot’s description has validity and supportable evidence but L. David Mech and I think other variables influence how much wolves direct trophic cascading. Evidence-based scientific studies will help self-correct current knowledge.

Key points from the previous articles were that some people want wolves protected, others want them exterminated, while others want them managed to protect livestock, pets, and wildlife populations while allowing wolves to thrive. The November ballot options were both defeated. One ballot proposal would have allowed a small politically appointed group to make decisions regarding hunting. The other would have created a wolf-hunting season managed by DNR wildlife biologists. The current practice to manage wolves on an individual basis when and if a problem develops will continue. That is social/political aspect.

The greatest numbers of votes were probably cast on emotion rather than science supported data. Most people do not have the time or inclination to read scientific studies before decision-making.

Scientific research gathers data to draw conclusions. It is the nature of science to challenge all studies and look for weakness in study design and conclusions. Through the process, studies are repeated to verify data accuracy and to correct errors. Science is self-correcting and is constantly refined toward making accurate conclusions.

Our instant satisfaction society wants definitive answers and conclusions immediately. Such conclusions are often applied to all situations instead of being applied to specific circumstances. Historically wolves were hated (emotional) and extirpated from most of the United States. The Endangered Species Act allowed recovery in some regions including Michigan’s Upper Peninsula where biological recovery has been achieved. The species was delisted in recovery areas but most of the continent’s historic wolf range remains without wolves. That is the scientific aspect.

Studies regarding wolves as the driving force behind trophic cascades in ecosystems continues. Wolves do cause elk and deer to move and evidence indicates vegetative communities recovered where once stationary elk moved from degraded overbrowsed habitat. Other natural factors have influence. No one species is responsible for ecosystem changes.

In national forests, where human alterations are used for watershed management, timber harvest, cattle grazing, hunting, hiking, other recreation, and mining, there is greater impact on plant growth and associated animal species than is caused by wolves. Human activities dramatically alter non-wilderness areas.

Though Yellowstone National Park is massive in size it is not adequately large to meet wolf needs. Wolf hunting is allowed outside the park in national forest. Management plans are working to largely exterminate wolves rather than manage a healthy population in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem. Even a radio collared research pack was killed when it entered the national forest. You can review part 2 of this series regarding trophic cascades by Googling Cedar Springs Post, click Outdoors, and click Nature Niche to read previous articles. You might want to read George Monbiot’s book, Feral: Rewilding the Land, Sea, and Human Life and Mech’s book, The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species.