Let’s see the science on wolves
March 13, 2018
In his letter published Monday, Mark Harvey suggests that I indulged in chicanery when I stated that proponents of wolf reintroduction in Colorado seem motived more by a sense of collective guilt than good science. But Delia Malone did say in her commentary of (March 4, 2018) that we need to restore wolves "to right a terrible wrong," and that "in our quest for manifest destiny, … we subjected them to a campaign of persecution". That's an admission of collective guilt. And her words echo those of the conservationist Aldo Leopold, who first popularized the "trophic cascade" concept in his famous Sand County Almanac.
Leopold described how his concerns about deer overgrazing first occurred as he looked into the eyes of a dying she-wolf after he had shot her. "I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters' paradise. But after seeing the green fire (in her eyes) die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view." That's an admission of personal guilt — Leopold regretted killing one of Harvey's "majestic animals."
That doesn't mean the trophic cascade theory is nonsense. It does mean that conservationists should not confuse good motive with bad science. Which brings us to Harvey's second contention: that extermination of the wolf in Colorado has caused a trophic cascade in which "the whole food chain of plants and animals in that region — willow trees, aspens, beavers, songbirds, trout — fall out of balance." That may have happened in Yellowstone, but where is the evidence that it's happened in Colorado? Maybe some aspen stands in Rocky Mountain National Park needed to be fenced to be saved from elk there, but what evidence is there that wolves would solve this problem or that it occurs elsewhere in Colorado?
For that matter, where in the Roaring Fork Valley is the "whole food chain," or any part of it, out of balance due to the absence of wolves as Harvey suggests? Missouri Heights? Basalt Mountain? Old Snowmass? The wilderness areas? The Crown? If evidence of lupine trophic cascade in Colorado exists, it should be on the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project's website. If it isn't there, a reasonable inference is that it doesn't exist.
For his third point, Harvey cites a 2006 Montana study of Yellowstone wolf tourism as showing that wolves would be good for Colorado's economy. Maybe if climate change continues to reduce skier days, we'll need to promote wolf tourism in the Roaring Fork. But that day has not yet arrived, and a convincing argument that wolf tourism would be a welcome boost to Colorado's economy has yet to be made.
In sum, if there's good evidence that Colorado suffers from lupine trophic cascade which can be remedied through wolf reintroduction, let's see it. If there's more to the wolf reintroduction program in Colorado than a well-funded public-relations campaign, however well-intended, let's see the science.
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