Monday, November 2, 2009


Much SF is concerned with environmental issues, from dead oceans (e.g., TIMESCAPE) to calorie shortages (most of Paolo Bacigaluppi), to global warming. In the best of these books -- unlike most SF movies, which goes for simple disaster -- attention is paid to the need to balance the concerns of various forces. You can't change one part of the environmental equation without affecting other parts.

A real-life version of this is playing out right now with regard to wolves in the West. Since their reintroduction into Yellowstone Park in 1995, wolves have multiplied to about 1600 in a three-state region. That's enough to endanger too many elk herds, so wolf hunting was reintroduced in Montana and Idaho (but not yet Wyoming). There are quotas in place for each part of the state, but that has not ensured balance. For one thing, wolves don't seem to know where Idaho ends and Wyoming begins.

Conservationists argue that allowing wolves to be hunted only four months after being removed from the endangered-species list could damage the recovery. They also object because several of the wolves killed so far have been those wearing radio-tracking devices that allowed zoologists to study pack behavior. In the Cottonwood Creek pack, at least four of the pack's ten members have been shot, including all those equipped with radio trackers.

On the other side of the debate are different conservationists plus some park officials, who say that the unexpectedly quick repopulation of wolves has badly damaged elk and deer herds, and that unless the wolves are hunted, the entire food chain will be upset. Joining this side are some farmers. One rancher in Dillon, Montana, found in his pasture the carcasses of 122 sheep. Wolves, unlike many predators, will kill more than they eat, killing for pleasure.

Conservationists have filed lawsuits to shut down the wolf hunt. If that succeeds, a third faction fears, ranchers and hunters will simply take matters into their own hands and shoot wolves illegally. So what's the answer? Nobody seems to know. But the entire controversy illustrates how complex controlling the environment can be. And what applies to wolves also applies to crops, atmosphere, rain forests, and oceans. None of it is as simple as the disaster movies make it sound.


Tim of Angle said...

Perhaps a rule that each herd of sheep, elk, or deer must be accompanied by a band of conservationists. That seems fair, at least to the wolves.

Richard said...

Seems to me as the environmental system gets more and more unstable, interventions like this become more and more likely to enhance that instability. When "Day after Tomorrow" came along, there was a lot of criticism of the science (or lack thereof) its plot reflected. But one wonders if the environment may not have reached that fabled "tipping point" where it does slide into chaotic behavior.

Orion said...

The more impoverished an ecosystem becomes, the more subject it is to small perturbations. The farmers and ranchers rely on artificial monocultures which are intrinsically unstable. If the wolves find nothing to eat but sheep, they will eat sheep until the wolf population peaks and the sheep population crashes- followed quickly by the wolf population. It's a good example of instability in an artificially simplified ecosystem.

The lesson here is indeed that tinkering with ecosystems is perilous, but it's the initial dismantling of the local food chain for agriculture and ranching that are the real ecological problems, not the reintroduction of native species to said ecosystem.

James A. Ritchie said...

It's impossible not to tinker with any eco system. We're a hundred years past that.

The answer seems pretty simple, to me. Monitor the wolf population, just as we monitor nearly every other wildlife poulation. If it gets too high, start hunting. If it gets too low, stop hunting.

Wolves really have no natural enemies. The population grows or shrinks according to food supply. This was fine a few hundred years ago. The food supply dwindles, and teh wolves starve to death. If either population gets too high without a ocntrolling factor, disease quickly drops teh numbers.

This will not work today. It won;t work with sheep, deer, elk, or wolves because all the systems are closed.

This means we have a choice of letting starvation and disease control populations, which is not going to happen, or we control them, which is NOT interfering with nature. We're as much a part of nature as an elk or a wolf, we're just better at hunting, and know when to start and stop killing.