The legend of wolves and wapiti
The story of how reintroduced wolves transformed Yellowstone is now well known. According to the story, wolves scared elk away from the riversides, which allowed the willows and aspen to recover, allowing beavers to come back because they had home-building material big enough to use, and the beaver dams restored the health of the watershed.
I remember reading this story in college. I was sitting at a computer in UVA’s Alderman Library, digging up articles for a class presentation, when I stumbled on the now highly controversial article, “Wolves and the Ecology of Fear.” It blew my mind: right then and there, at the beginning of my last year of college, I knew I wanted to study how predators drove ecosystem dynamics.
It’s a beautiful story, and one that changed the trajectory of my career. And it’s one that’s been very hard to let go of, despite mounting evidence over the last decade that this story might not be more than a myth.
I had the good fortune of meeting Arthur at the Ecological Society of America talk last summer. I was a big fan of the work that he’d done, and that of his Ph.D. advisor, Dr. Matt Kaufman. But I didn’t envy either of them as they stepped into the fire of trying to take down what has become a beloved, monumental, epic tale. There’s no doubt that behaviorally-mediated trophic cascades do exist, and that predators can have profound influences on ecosystems, but the long-standing poster child for this simply isn’t real.
If you do one thing on your coffee break today, read his piece. While I could summarize the debate here, I couldn’t begin to do justice to Arthur’s eloquent argument.
Scratch that. If there’s one thing you do today, read Arthur’s piece. Not only will it make you think about wolves and ecology, but it will make you think about what nature we save, why we save it, and why that matters.