The Yellowstone Wolf Myth

Yellowstone National Park sign at the North Entrance;
Jim Peaco; October 1992

There is a recently released documentary video that is gaining steam. It’s called “How Wolves Changed A River”. You may have seen it. Heck, it’s had over 39 million views on YouTube. Good chance some of you are those viewers. I mentioned it in a previous blog post Lost Connection with Nature.  Lately I’ve been seeing more references to it. It’s designed to tug at the heartstrings and is being used by animal rights groups to show why wolves should not be hunted. The problem is, the concept presented in the video is myth. It has been debunked by numerous scientists.

Photo National Park Service

The documentary video is based on a scientific theory, Trophic Cascade. I’ll avoid getting down into the scientific weeds here, but the theory says reintroduction of one animal species at the top of the food chain into an environment totally changes the ecosystem. In this case, the video producer contents that reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone National Park in 1995 totally changed the ecosystem. To the point it changed the flow of the Lamar River through the park. That’s heavy stuff!

I first became aware of the video when a friend shared it on Facebook and, knowing I’m a hunter and do some wildlife habitat reading, asked my thoughts. While watching the video my Spidey senses began to tingle when the narrator referred to elk as “deer”.

That started me on my research journey. I thought the theory interesting but needed more information. Turns out life isn’t that simple. As Aldo Leopold contends in “A Sand Country Almanac” the natural world is connected in ways we know, and ways we don’t yet know.

The first thing I learned is Yellowstone suffered massive wildfires in 1988 burning nearly 800,000 acres. That’s seven years before wolves returned. Due to the destructive nature of wildfires, significant impact was made on the Yellowstone ecosystem. Native plants were destroyed, new plants regenerated, wildlife species relocated, and subsequent rains on a vegetation barren landscape could have changed river paths. The fact is, the ecosystem was in its early stages of natural regeneration when they dropped the truck tailgate to release the wolves.

We have to look no further than where I live here in Western North Carolina to see the visible evidence of wildfire. We had two massive (for our region) wildfires in 2016: the Silver Mine Fire in Madison County in the Spring and numerous wildfires in the Nantahala NF in October-November of that year. Anyone who has visited those areas in the intervening period can see the results. The environment has changed there hasn’t it?

The video has other glaring omission errors, probably intentional. An article from the NRA Hunters’ Leadership Forum says some of the key footage showing habitat improvement is not from Yellowstone, or is from parts of Yellowstone not part of the normal wildlife habitat.

Also, the video contends the wolves reduced the elk, bison, and deer population to allow the natural regeneration. Yes, wolves are predators on those species. But elk and bison also learn to adapt to predators, and herds simply scattered or relocated and soon returned. The habitat is now much as it was pre-wolf.

Photo U.S. Park Service

Scientists who have actually spent time on the ground in Yellowstone largely call the video hype and say it is myth. Current research shows that beavers have a greater impact on Yellowstone’s rivers than do wolves. A scientist at Colorado State University suggests that changes in precipitation, stream flow, floodplains and water tables are also contributing factors to ecosystem change, probably more so than wolves.

I guess my point here is nature isn’t that simple. We have been scientifically studying wildlife and ecosystems in this country for nearly a century. Yes, we have learned a lot. But there is still much we don’t know. We know what kind of habitat wildlife desires and needs to survive. Carrying capacity for wildlife is based on several factors including a variety of cover and food sources. And either an overabundance or reduction of a species in that habitat can impact the ecosystem. Unforeseen events like wildfire, floods, and disease also changes an ecosystem. Did the chestnut blight decades ago change our mountain habitat? You bet.

In our instant information society we would like to attribute everything that happens in nature to a single event or magic bullet. Nature is too complex for that. When we are presented with a simple solution to a natural phenomenon we should question its precept. Our society has largely lost connection with nature and we still have much to learn. The answers can be found in science, not emotion. Let’s keep learning and studying to improve our understanding of our earthly home. I know that every time I visit nature it is a learning experience.

Lost Connection with Nature

An old high school friend I connected with on Facebook recently posted a video about how the re-introduction of gray wolves to Yellowstone National Park in 1994 completely changed the ecosystem. Down to the point they attributed the course change of a stream to the wolves. The first thing I noticed in the video was they referred to elk as deer. And that’s where our civil discussion started. I noted the producers didn’t know much about wildlife if they didn’t know the difference. She allowed as how despite that editorial glitch the concept was the same.

Photo U.S. Park Service

Well, no it’s not. I then pointed out that six years prior to the wolf re-introduction Yellowstone had a massive wildfire, largest in its history, that profoundly affected the ecosystem; more so than the wolf population. The landscapes recovery from the wildfire simply coincided with the wolf introduction. To attribute ALL changes in the ecosystem to one apex predator was a bit of a stretch. After our online discussion ended it got me thinking: This is what we face as sportsmen and conservationists. An uninformed populous that doesn’t understand nature and falls for “feel good” publicity.

I don’t like to make generalizations, but generally speaking the American population has lost touch with nature. And just so you don’t think I’m just pointing fingers at environmentalists and animal rights folks, there are hunters who don’t get it either. Prior to the above internet exchange I was talking to a fellow clays shooter about grouse hunting. He allowed as how his friend in Vermont didn’t hunt grouse anymore because the grouse in his favorite cover were gone. I expressed that it wasn’t the grouse were just gone but the habitat had matured to an age that it was no longer suitable to grouse. They just moved.

Nature’s landscape is beautifully dynamic and impacted by many events. No one knew that more than Native Americans prior to colonization. We’ve been taught to believe those early North American dwellers had a light footprint on their environment. That is not true. In Charles Mann’s book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus early scientific explorers found evidence that tribes routinely managed forests and fields for their own sustenance. They conducted what we call prescribed burns to help young seeds regenerate to attract wildlife and keep fields open. They also cut non-beneficial trees to allow mast bearing trees like oaks, hickory, and chestnut to grow for their own use as well to attract wildlife. I highly recommend its reading to understand early North America. You’ll be surprised.

Hunters are often blamed for the near extinction of elk in the eastern United States. And surely there were excesses with no game laws and a hungry population to feed in our westward movement. But another factor is that our colonization changed the landscape. Elk need grassy fields to graze. We turned those fields Native Americans had managed for wildlife into forests for a growing timber industry. Combine excessive hunting with a changing ecology and you see what we get.

Photo U.S. Park Service

Elk were not introduced into forested areas of the Smoky Mountains but an area with open fields, Cataloochee Valley. And as the herd has expanded they’ve sought similar habitat outside the Park boundaries. The North Carolina Wildlife Commission is now working with the U.S. Forest Service on land adjacent to the Park and also has acquired local land to improve habitat in a new Game Land.

Native Americans didn’t use science to manage the landscape, but simply knowledge and human reasoning passed down over generations connected to the land. The Roman philosopher Cicero called it Natural Law. Science is to a degree an extension of Natural Law. Yes, there are folks who still have that connection with the land; farmers and hunters among them. Like Native Americans, they depend on it for sustenance and as a livelihood. Unfortunately within the general populous that is the exception, not the rule. In its most recent survey the USFWS found only about 12% of the American populous hunt.For the proper conservation of our resources we need to try and understand the complex relationship of all the factors affecting an ecosystem. Study. Read. Ask questions. Walk the land. Don’t just take for granted what an advocacy group says. Remember, they are advocating for a purpose. Sometimes facts and science that don’t support their purpose are willfully ignored.

That’s what real hunters, anglers and conservationists do. Not only do we pursue game, we understand the landscape and how different factors impact it whether it is fire, timber harvests, or introduction of a wildlife species. We are connected to the land. We do that not just for the game but to heighten the experience and connect us with nature. That’s what our forbearers did. Why can’t we?

Forest Management Isn’t Evil

from Forest History Society
Carl Schenck with Biltmore Boys

A columnist, and historian, for the local paper recently wrote an article with glowing remarks for a local environmental group and their impact on U.S. Forest Service management of the Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests. In that piece he put the words Forest Management in quotes. I don’t know about you, but normally when you see something written in quotes it is meant as a bad thing. That got me thinking: since when was forest management considered evil?

So I had to respond. Here’s the text of my email to him: “In your January 8th column “Of bogs, beavers, red wolves” you put forest management in quotes as if it is a bad thing. OK, I know the paper is in the tank for the environmental movement. But as a historian you should remember that American forestry started here in western North Carolina through the efforts of Gifford Pinchot and Carl Schenck. That heritage is recognized at the Cradle of Forestry near Brevard.

The scientific research Schenck, a self-described lumberman, did over a century ago in the Biltmore School of Forestry became the foundational principles for the newly formed U.S. Forest Service. Those principles encompass what is multiple use forest management: timber harvest for the local economy; recreational use for people; a variety of habitat for wildlife.

Until the environmental movement involvement in the 1990s you mentioned in that column those principles held true. Instead of conservation of resources, wise use, it became a model of preservation for human use. Forest management is a science, not an emotion which is what environmentalists bring to the table. Thanks to their efforts the forest no longer provides the economic benefit of timber harvest or habitat for survival of wildlife.

If you haven’t already, as a historian you should spend an hour viewing the documentary “America’s First Forest: Carl Schenck and the Asheville Experiment” to truly understand that forest management is not evil. It is about conservation, not preservation.

Timber harvest at the Biltmore School of Forestry

Western North Carolina is proud of its heritage but seems to have forgotten this part of it. Scientific forest management in the United States started here. Carl Schenck came from Germany as a trained forester but had to re-learn his science because of the variety of trees and terrain differences he was trained for in Germany. George Vanderbilt brought him here to manage his Biltmore Estate forest, a working/self-sustaining estate, with three purposes in mind: produce timber for income, recreational opportunities for Vanderbilt and his guests, and wildlife habitat associated with that recreation.

In doing so Schenck took local young men under his wing and trained them in his new forestry techniques. That became the Biltmore School of Forestry, first in the nation, and many of his students went to work for the newly formed U.S. Forest Service. The same principles he taught at that school also became the guiding principles for the Forest Service for following decades, that of multiple use.

Then arrived the environmental movement and everything changed. Management of the forest wasn’t about science but emotion. Thus the name “tree hugger” (and yes that’s meant in bad terms). In the 1990’s the model started turning from conservation with multiple uses to preservation only considering the recreational and emotional benefit of an undisturbed forest. Using regulations and litigation, along with an emotionally sympathetic and uninformed populous, environmentalists all but shut down timber harvests and thus wildlife habitat on the National Forests in our southern mountains.

Evidence? Year after year the Forest Service has failed to meet timber harvest goals for both economic benefit and wildlife habitat. This has resulted in the Pisgah/Nantahala National Forests being only 1% young forest growth when the goal is 10 percent. And wildlife has suffered.

During the most recent North Carolina deer harvest recorded year, 2016-2017, there were more deer harvested in one county in Western NC than on ALL of the Pisgah/Nantahala;  nearly 1 million acres. As reported by the NC Wildlife Commission avid grouse hunter survey data, grouse numbers continue to decline to the point that a hunter will have no flushes on one of three trips taken on Forest Service land. Non-game species like Golden-Winged Warblers are also in decline.

Schenck Instructing Students in Forestry

It is time to put the science back into forest management, not associate it with something evil. The research and teaching Carl Schenck did a century ago is still true today. Forestry management truly is a science, not an emotion. Wildlife habitat is also a science. No matter how many times environmentalists say they support wildlife habitat, their words ring hollow. They ignore the science in favor of an emotional response. A cautionary note to hunters: If you want to continuing pursuing game on federal forests you’d better stand tall, learn the science, and speak up. We need to spread the message: Forestry is a science, not an emotion. Forestry and Wildlife Management is not evil.

Photos courtesy Forest History Society – www.foresthistory.org