A Savanna Life in a Technological World



An understanding of the paleoecology can shed new light on our current political debate and open up new options for win/win solutions. In other words, my opinions about wolves will make everyone on all sides of the political spectrum angry.

Before I do that, I will make everyone angry by talking about what I did this last week, which means its time for the Almanac section. I went down to California again this week and spent the time moving the cattle out of the exact same nasty rocky pasture that I moved them out of last month when I was down. I’m beginning to notice a pattern. But the cattle were a little more calm this time around. And I was just again struck by how much more savanna-like the ranch looks. I can’t say exactly how it happened. All I know for sure is when we first got the lease I didn’t see any savanna when I looked around. I tired looking open ground and brush. Nothing in between. Now in some places you can look up those long, long rocky hills and see to the top, a carpet of bright green below and stately oaks above. But running around on hills is the easy part. When the cattle were moved, I had to quickly skeedadle on home. We suddenly got a ton of rain and I had to go rescue my cattle from the rising river. Now it’s up 25 feet.

Back to wolves. Let’s start with my perspective as a rancher. As a real live rancher that has to pay a mortgage, I admit, I am not looking forward to having to deal with wolves, which are very quickly entering our area. As they do. It is just one more thing that I am going to have to deal with. Somewhere there is some slouch sitting around doing nothing. Someone who is not doing something important like sipping coffee and writing a three page blog about how busy they are. Let that guy or gal deal with wolves. I am already responsible for another two hundred species.

All my fellow nature-geeks, listen up. I love you. I am one with you, but you need to understand something; your pius attitudes about wolves is obnoxious to ranchers because wolves are one issue where no one else pays, or goes through even a little trouble, except ranchers.

Its like when you were fifteen and a half. Everyone had that friend that had already turned sixteen, had their drivers license, had a car, and had a job. They would complain about how they had to pay for gas and had to drive everyone around. But no one paid any attention. Then when we had to do it ourselves we felt differently. The difference is that with wolves, ranchers have to deal with adolescent complaining and entitled feelings, while trying to run a business and support a family, not just fill the car with gas. Only a statistically insignificant percentage of the people in this country pay the price for wolves. It is easy to be high minded about something when you do not pay the price!

People have learned not to be too obnoxious about CO2 emissions. Why? Well… because all of us drove here. But with wolves it can be a great badge of honor that someone has not killed a single wolf all week. What an environmental crusader. Whereas I provide the habitat for those other two hundred species. I am a functional member of the ecosystem in good standing. Can someone who is a lawyer, or a barista, or an activitst say the same? I suggest not.

On the other hand, faced with this sort of apathy/hostility, ranchers take their agrieved status too far. We have become a lot of complainers. We say we cannot live with wolves before we even try and set out to prove that it is the case.

In many ways I want to flip that argument on its head. Why ranch? Why be a rancher? I think the only real reason at this point is because you want to be connected to nature and to our human heritage. I want my kids to grow up in a world where there are all kinds of plants and animals. One of those animals are wolves. I also want them to live in a world where they can hunt wolves. That is part of what it is to be human.

Or you could just figure that it is going to happen no matter what you want. A sure fire public policy success in a democracy is to find something most of the people want and make a tiny number of people pay for it.

How do we reconcile these two perspectives? Well I would suggest we could look to nature for the answer to that. When people say things like that they often mean ‘lets adhere to a certain dogma.’ But for instance, I think it is good to see how wolves interacted with other predators when they were introduced into an area. I won’t string you along, they killed them. Specifically they killed fifty percent of the coyotes in the Yellowstone ecosystem. Ranchers who have tried to kill fifty percent of the coyotes on their ranch know that this translates into an all out, concerted massacre.

Another way of looking at this dynamic is to look at the large predator guild that existed in North America in the Pleistocene. There were about a half dozen predators that were larger than wolves in Pleistocene North America. Wolves are not apex predators. They are meso-fauna.  It is very hard to imagine that those predators would do anything onto wolves other than what wolves did onto coyotes.

In other words, nonlethal methods cannot work when it comes to wolf livestock interactions. Believing that they can means suspending your belief in evolution through natural selection. Non lethal methods might work for today or for this year. But eventually an available niche will be exploited by wolves.

In one of my nature-geeky facebook groups I saw a post from a wolf researcher/activist bemoaning the loss of one of their favorite wolves to hunters in Montana. This is an emotional argument, not an ecological one. I sympathize with those emotions. But a coyote researcher would feel the same way about the wolves introduced into the park. An elk researcher that looks at a stack of uneaten elk calves killed by wolves could also feel resentful to wolves. Nature does not take sides like that and does not change her policies based on emotional appeals.

This will mean that there are going to be animals killed by wolves. Ranchers will have to follow a set of best practices to keep that depredation to a minimum, including the best predator protection there ever was, herding behavior. Ranchers need a way of being compensated for this extreme expense. This will probably reduce wolf predation to near zero, according to the initial reports from my friends in Montana. In this way, most of the country would be available for wolf habitat. But there will be animals lost to wolves. We need a zero tolerance policy of wolf livestock depredation, enforced with lethal means. In this way we are putting ourselves in the role of larger predators in the ecosystem. As lions and short faced bears would do, we are carving out and asserting our niche in the ecosystem. From the perspective of paleoecology, putting wolves at the top of the ecosystem is a very long ways from any sane definition of ‘natural’. As such, a thoughtful program of lethal wolf control is a form of restoration.

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