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The Silence of the Wildby William Stolzenburg
Beyond all the smoke and thunder, beneath the journalists' radar, there was another, quieter sort of toppling going on out there. In what was otherwise assumed to be safe haven for the great woods, forests were falling where nobody thought to listen. Deep in the wilds of Washington's Olympic National Park, in one of the last great sanctuaries of old-growth rainforest in the Lower 48, big trees were dying, rivers were eroding, ecosystems were unraveling. As they still are today. And not by the cutting teeth of the chainsaw. Rather, it paradoxically seems, the forests are coming apart from the lack of a fanged creature that no longer patrols the place. That creature is the wolf.
Wolves were eradicated from Olympic Park early in the 20th century, as they were from nearly the entirety of the country. And in their void followed a chain of ecological chaos only now coming to light. With the wolves' departure (combined with the Park's prohibition of hunting), a modest herd of elk grew monstrously large and brazen. Thus unleashed, the hoofed browsers began devouring the park. Along the Olympic's major rivers, the black cottonwoods and bigleaf maples went barren, their seedlings incessantly nipped in the bud by that unchecked herd of elk. Without their anchoring trees and shrubs, the rivers banks rapidly eroded, widened, and wandered. What 19th-century explorers found to be neatly defined river channels heavily cloaked in brush and tangled in logjams, have become spreading expanses of bared gravel. The shaded pools and riffles once laden with aquatic insects and swimming with salmon waiting below with mouths agape; and hunted from above by hawking birds and bats are all but gone.
A quirky little parable of ecology it is not. Bill Ripple and Bob Beschta, the two scientists from Oregon State University who have just recently deciphered the dissolution in the Olympics, have over the past decade blown the cover from five other supposedly pristine western parks. They've found similar troubles from Zion in Utah to Jasper in Alberta, Canada; from Wind Cave in South Dakota to Yosemite in California; and most famously in the northwest corner of Wyoming, in the hallowed confines of Yellowstone. All have been diagnosed with varying symptoms of sickness, with forests and streams, birds and butterflies, frogs and fish and flowers, all coming unhinged for the apparent lack of cougars or wolves, the apex predators that once ruled these domains. The illness in the Olympic forests and rivers is no isolated outbreak, but a spreading strain of decay infecting the most sacred of sanctuaries.
Ripple and Beschta have become ecology's dynamic duo, uncovering what in their discipline has come to be called the trophic cascade a stepwise tumbling of nature, from the top of the food chain to the bottom. They have lately contributed the lion's share of field reports on what a lack of apex predators can mean to the pyramid of life beneath them. And they are but two of a growing cadre of researchers across the land coming to similarly disturbing conclusions.
Their colleagues see the same unraveling cascades in hordes of deer and elk chewing parks and preserves to the nub, from the Appalachians of Virginia to the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. They trace them to deer-associated epidemics of Lyme disease and highway collisions by the tens of thousands. They recognize the signs throughout backyard America, in a modern plague of second-string predators making out like bandits in their carefree new kingdom in marauding mobs of suburban raccoons, and in housecats by the millions, killing songbirds and small mammals and endangered species all, to the tune of a billion bodies a year. They find these symptoms in the seas, in monstrous new schools of fish scouring the Atlantic seaboard of oysters and scallops. And all too often, they find these cascades triggered in suspicious concordance with the demise of their communities' topmost predators.
These are the wolves and big cats, the great sharks and eagles, whose students have increasingly come to recognize them as key actors in the theater of life, whose recent and widespread absence is now transforming great swaths of nature into cruder and more chaotic states.
That's the bad news; here's a bit of good. In the few places where the big predators again thrive, miraculous transformations are under way. In Yellowstone, with wolves recently roaming again after a 70-year exile, forests are resurging. In critical places where the elk now run scared, the moribund willows and aspens are again blooming, the songbirds are singing, and beavers are damming streams long abandoned. In Utah, where the mule deer have done to the streamsides of Zion National Park what the elk have done to Yellowstone's, there's a hidden canyon in the park still harboring cougars, and it is ringing with life.
Such stories of ecological cascades are tough sells for the modern environmental journalist. They are not so easily framed as the good old black-and-white wars between corporate loggers and tree huggers. They don't shout with the outrage of an Exxon Valdez dumping eleven million gallons of crude oil in Alaska's Prince William Sound, with its grotesque specters of blackened beaches and drowned seabirds and oiled otters. They can't match the billowing smoke and fire from the torching of Amazonia. The new story is a more subtle one, of silence where the wolf once howled, and an eerie turn of nature that has deer walking bold as lions, with forest and river crumbling quietly in their wake.
It takes a keener sense of imagination to see these invisible threads of life fraying. And a deeper sense of history to muster concern. It takes a leap of faith and a heavy dose of humility to now embrace those big fierce beasts we so vehemently annihilated. To welcome them back to places we so wrongly thought would be better without them.
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William Stolzenburg has studied predator-control techniques, monitored endangered species, and written hundreds of magazine features and columns on the science of rarity and extinction for Nature Conservancy and Science News, among others. He lives in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.