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Tomgram: Chip Ward, A West Raised by Wolves

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Headlined to H3 9/28/10

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This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

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Note for TomDispatch Readers: Since this website returns to environmental themes today, I thought it worth mentioning that Juan Cole's September 9th piece, "The Great Pakistani Deluge Never Happened: Don't Tune In, It's Not Important," looks ever more eerily on target as the weeks pass. Low-lying parts of the Pakistani province of Sindh are still suffering from severe flooding two months after the Indus River first crested its banks, and according to the New York Times , the United Nations now considers what happened to approximately 20% of that country "the worst natural disaster [it] has ever responded to in its 65-year history." Yet the story of this catastrophe is already so long-gone from the U.S. media docket. It's worth returning to Cole's piece and thinking about the strangeness of all this. Tom]

The long vacation season of 2010 is, by now, a distant memory. But Chip Ward, who has covered everything from the aridifying of the West to the Tea Partying of the same territory for TomDispatch, reports from his tourist haven of a home in the backlands of Utah that, for the first time in years, there were more American visitors than French and German ones this summer. Perhaps it was a measure of a drooping economy as more Americans opt for cheaper domestic adventures. He gets a certain pleasure, he tells me, from watching them enjoy the redrock landscape he loves, but he always wonders how much they understand about what they're obsessively photographing. Most of us, after all, are not ecologically literate. We might know how to email, tweet, and text, but we don't know a keystone species from an ecotone.

That's a shame, because we'll need to be ecologically knowledgeable and aware to survive the human upheaval and ecological disruption that are likely to follow on the heels of what we call "global warming." Just check out flooded Pakistan, if you want to get a sense of the enormity of what could be coming. And yet it's not enough to simply, even obsessively, catalog the damage and the crises, and plot out the nightmares ahead. Anyone who can offer us some hints not just of why the world around us is falling apart, but of how it can be put back together, is doing us all a favor. Amazingly, amid the flood of bad environmental news, there's some good news, too, and Ward directs us toward one stirring case of it -- and the opposition to it. In his case, it helps that, for the last year, he's been listening in on the ongoing conversations of a group of biologists and environmentalists who have been dealing with the reintroduction of the wolf to the West -- and he has quite a story to tell. Tom

The Big Bad Wolf Makes Good
The Yellowstone Success Story and Those Who Want to Kill It
By Chip Ward

At long last, good news. Fifteen years have passed since wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park and the results are in. The controversial experiment has been a stellar success. The Big Bad Wolf is back and in this modern version of the old story, all that huffing and puffing has been good for the land and the creatures that live on it. Biggie, it turns out, got a bum rap.

The success of the Yellowstone project is the kind of good news we long for in this era of oil spills, monster storms, massive flooding, crushing heat waves, and bleaching corals. For once, a branch of our federal government, the Department of the Interior, saw something broken and actually fixed it. In a nutshell: conservation biologists considered a perplexing problem -- the slow but steady unraveling of the Yellowstone ecosystem -- figured out what was causing it, and then proposed a bold solution that worked even better than expected.

Sadly, the good news has been muted by subsequent political strife over wolf reintroduction outside of Yellowstone. Along the northern front of the Rocky Mountains in Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Utah, and Colorado, as well as New Mexico and Arizona, so-called wolf wars have added fuel to a decades-old battle over the right to graze cattle or hunt on public land. The shouting has overwhelmed both science and civil discourse. This makes it all the harder to convey the lessons learned to an American public that is mostly ecologically illiterate and never really understood why wolves were put back into Yellowstone in the first place. Even the legion of small donors who supported the project mostly missed the reasons it was undertaken, focusing instead on the "charismatic" qualities of wolves and the chance to see them in the wild.

No Wolves, No Water

Here's the piece we still don't get: when we exterminated wolves from Yellowstone in the early 1900s, killing every last one, we de-watered the land. That's right -- no wolves eventually meant fewer streams, creeks, marshes, and springs across western landscapes like Yellowstone where wolves had once thrived.

The chain of effects went roughly like this: no wolves meant that many more elk crowded onto inviting river and stream banks where the grass is green and the livin' easy. A growing population of fat elk, in no danger of being turned into prey, gnawed down willow and aspen seedlings before they could mature. Willows are both food and building material for beavers. As the willows declined, so did beaver populations. When beavers build dams and ponds, they create wetland habitats for countless bugs, amphibians, fish, birds, and plants, as well as slowing the flow of water and distributing it over broad areas. The consequences of their decline rippled across the land.

Meanwhile, as the land dried up, Yellowstone's overgrazed riverbanks eroded. Life-giving river water receded, leaving those banks barren. Spawning beds for fish were silted over. Amphibians lost precious shade where they could have sheltered and hidden. Yellowstone's web of life was fraying and becoming threadbare.

The unexpected relationship between absent wolves and absent water is just one example of how big, scary predators like grizzlies and mountain lions, often called "charismatic carnivores," regulate their ecosystems from the top down. The results are especially relevant in an era of historic droughts and global warming, both of which are stressing already arid Western lands. Wolf reintroduction wasn't a scheme designed to undermine vacationing elk hunters or harass ranchers who graze their cattle on public lands. It wasn't done to please some cabal of elitist, urban environmentalists eager to show rural rednecks who's the boss, though out here in the West that interpretation's held sway at many public meetings called to discuss wolf reintroduction.

Let's be clear then: the decision to put wolves back in Yellowstone was a bold experiment backed by the best conservation science available to restore a cherished American ecosystem that was coming apart at the seams.

The Biggest Losers

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 
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