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Let’s Talk About Something Else

This past Friday I talked on the phone with Brian Kahn, the host of “Home Ground” on Montana Public Radio, about my forthcoming book, The Spine of the Continent. Kahn was doing a bit of leg work in advance of having me on his show; an attorney and former head of the Montana Nature Conservancy, he addresses environmental issues but is keenly aware that much of his listening audience is inclined against the very term. I explained that The Spine of the Continent (Lyons Press, Sept. 2012) is about a social, political, scientific, and geographic movement to protect corridors along the Rocky Mountains, across our borders, in accordance with what conservation biology tells us is necessary to save nature. Plants and animals are moving as the climate is changing, and we have to make it possible for them to do so.

Kahn asked me if Y2Y, or Yellowstone to Yukon, has anything to do with The Spine of the Continent. Yes, I said, Y2Y is part of the larger initiative. Y2Y is an NGO concerned with creating and sustaining connection for nature along 2000 miles in the Northern Rockies. Y2Y makes grizzly bears its signature totem. The 600 or so grizzlies in Yellowstone need to be able to mingle with others of their kind up to the larger populations in Canada to sustain genetic viability. This kind of connectivity is like a relay race, where one population hands off genetic renewal to the next and everyone keeps on keeping on.

Then Kahn and I talked about other forms of connectivity, in the interactions among nature’s denizens. I told him how the sixth mass extinction crisis that we are currently teetering on has everything to do with climate change.[1] As plants and animals are blinking out at a rate and magnitude reaching the proportions that defined previous geological epochs, like the Jurassic, which took out the dinosaurs, we are losing large-bodied mammals at the fastest rate. This means we are losing the top predators in the ecosystem.[2] Far from the free-loaders on the top of the food pyramid that we thought they were, it turns out top predators have a significant “forcing” role on the rest of the chain. I told him about the Yellowstone wolf example. Wolves were extirpated from our first national park by the 1920s, and reintroduced in the 1990s. Scientists have had a close eye on Yellowstone and watched carefully as much of the park’s riparian or river areas became degraded over the years. When the wolves came back, these areas started to heal. Aspen started to grow up bigger and stronger along the banks of the rivers, holding the soil in place when big rainfalls came through, and providing food for beaver, which had disappeared from the neighborhood, and now came back in. Beaver dams slow down the flow of water and clean it; more bugs, fish, birds, and small mammals move in where beaver are present. The landscape becomes resilient, and is better able to withstand floods and fire.

Beaver are on the wolf menu; how did this make sense? Clearly the wolves were having an effect on how the deer and elk of Yellowstone were browsing down the vegetation on the sides of the river banks. Despite their fearsome reputation, wolves don’t actually kill that many elk or deer. But when they are around, these browsers behave differently, looking over their shoulder approximately every two minutes, staying on the move. This is called the “ecology of fear,” and it helps keep ecosystems healthy.

Kahn told me ranchers in his listening audience would take great exception to the implication that they should tolerate wolves on their land. Ranchers don’t like it when their cows get killed by wolves. This is something I heard quite a lot when I traveled the spine while researching my book. Even a predator booster like Diana Hadley, who is president of the Northern Jaguar Project in Arizona, told me how difficult it is for ranchers to like wolves. She’s raised dairy cows herself. “When you get up one morning and you see a newborn calf has been downed by a wolf, it’s awful,” she told me. “I know that baby’s mother and grandmother. It’s a terrible loss.” Again, we can all understand that losing a cow is not just an emotional event but a financial one, and many ranchers live on slim margins.

But hasn’t this conversation become completely outdated? I explained to Kahn that nobody is telling anybody what to do on the spine of the continent, that communities have to decide for themselves what they will pay for, and what they won’t pay for. If I were a rancher today, I wouldn’t worry so much about losing a few cows. I would worry about a major weather event or fire coming through, and destroying my whole ranch. State taxes and federal taxes are going to be mightily stretched to recuperate lands lost to climate change events – as with Hurricane Katrina – when they start happening more frequently. Ranchers can protect their cows from wolves by grazing them differently, but many of them refuse. Should we let them degrade their land just because they have always been able to do so? The conversation is no longer about cows and wolves. It is about resilient ecosystems that will help human systems cope with climate change. Let’s talk about that.


[1] Anthony D. Barnosky, et al., “Has the Earth’s sixth mass extinction already arrived?” Nature 471 (March 3, 2011): 51.

[2] James A. Estes, et al., “Trophic Downgrading of Planet Earth.” Science, 333, no. 6040 (July 15, 2011): 301-306.

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