Wild Thing

By Mary Ellen Hannibal

For those of us sitting in coffee shops or behind desks most of the day, the furious controversy that rages across the West concerning wolves seems bizarre and esoteric.

On the one side are some ranchers and hunters who would seemingly like to eliminate wolves from the face of the earth; on the other side are animal and environmental activists who say, we’ve got to live with these creatures.

Whatever the pros and cons of the debate, the wolf situation in many ways epitomizes our relationship with the wild – not an easy one.

Cristina Eisenberg, a scientist and expert on the role wolves play in the ecosystem, explains the biology of the situation in her book The Wolf’s Tooth. Her case is both rational and passionate, and endlessly fascinating to read.

MEH: Among other things, your book describes the role of top carnivores in an ecosystem.  Contrary to what we might expect, wolves in particular have an effect not only on the animals they directly hunt, but on down the food chain. They impact the health of plant life and even the relative complexity of the soil.  Did you learn this knowledge in school, or in the field?

CE: I learned about this at home. Since the mid-1990s my family and I have lived in a small log cabin in northwest Montana. Our land backs up onto a state forest, and then onto the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area, which is one of the largest wilderness areas in the lower 48 contiguous United States. We had a three-acre meadow on our land, where we used to be able to watch deer and elk browsing for hours. We had been hearing wolves howl now and then, but had never seen one.

Then one day my young daughters and I saw a pair of wolves chase a deer across our meadow. And within five years, everything had changed ecologically in our meadow—the deer and elk were still there in good number, but they no longer stood around complacently eating, they were wary, on the move. And the meadow had grown in, trees and shrubs that had been browsed down to ankle-height, now growing lush and tall. These trees and shrubs provided a home for more species of songbirds. Today we no longer have a meadow. I became so deeply curious about these relationships as a writer and a scientist that I was inspired to go to graduate school to study the effect of wolves on plants, songbirds, and whole ecosystems.

MEH: You have a background in painting and journalism and have made a career shift to science.  How does your prior experience influence your current work?

CE: My background in the liberal arts taught me to think organically, rather than linearly. And in order to study a whole food web, one in which relationships between members of that food web can be tangled and complex, what Darwin referred to as “ecology’s tangled bank,” it helps to be able to think more organically about the impacts of top predators across an entire web. Everything is connected, and if you tug on one member of the web of life, all the other members feel that tug. But these are not linear relationships. As a keystone predator, the wolf has profound effects on whole ecosystems—these relationships are called trophic cascades. My backgrounds in art and writing have enabled me to explore those relationships creatively and write about them compellingly–in a way that clearly explains the science in a way that touches people’s hearts and minds.

MEH: One of your ongoing projects is on the privately-held High Lonesome Ranch in Colorado, which you are helping restore to a healthy balance.  What are the biggest challenges there?

CE: The High Lonesome Ranch represents the next frontier for trophic cascades science. The research I have done for my doctorate, which is nearing completion, has taken place in two national parks: Glacier National Park and Waterton Lakes National Park. And considerable trophic cascades research on wolves has been done in places like Yellowstone National Park by some very fine scientists. But learning how this science can be applied to the real world—to working landscapes, where there are crops being grown and active cattle ranching and hunting and timber harvest—and learning to apply trophic cascades principles to create healthier, more resilient ecosystems—that is the frontier for this science. The High Lonesome Ranch is a privately-owned 300 square mile ranch being managed for conservation and mixed uses that include ranching. The ranch owners want to use trophic cascades science, which involves conserving large predators such as cougars and wolves, to create a healthier landscape. They want to demonstrate how coexistence with keystone predators can be a win-win situation for human communities and whole ecosystems, and have created a tremendous environment for this. Applying cutting-edge science that has been developed in national parks to a working landscape is the biggest challenge at the High Lonesome Ranch.

MEH: You have also conducted research in Glacier National Park.  How have things changed there in the time you’ve been studying it?

CE: Glacier National Park has in some ways been a best-kept secret. Wolves returned to that park on their own, coming down from Canada in the 1980s. For twenty years there has been a really high, healthy wolf population in that park. But this is not Yellowstone, so those wolves have led very private lives. Additionally, Glacier is far more intact than Yellowstone—has been subjected over the years to far less manipulation. Consequently, it’s been an amazing system to study as a scientist. Wolves in that park have led very sheltered lives and have grown in number to a very robust population. Not much has changed with those wolves in the time I gathered data for my doctorate—so in a way this was like a “control” area, what can be thought of as a reference ecosystem. However, now that wolves have been delisted (removed from the list of protected species via the ESA), they will be hunted, and that will have impacts on this population and that will change the dynamics in this ecosystem.

MEH: Most scientists who study animals seem to have a favorite.  You clearly have a soft spot for wolves – but do grizzly bears have a special place in your heart as well?  What can you tell us about each of those species?

CE: I live in an area that has the highest density of grizzly bears in the lower 48 contiguous United States. Over the years I have encountered them frequently, both on my land and in the field in the two national parks in which I work. I have found grizzlies to be fascinating, beautiful creatures who are far more polite and kinder than most humans. They tend to be patient with people, as long as we treat them with respect. By respect I mean giving them their privacy as much as possible, listening to cues they give us that it’s best to leave a place, and abiding by their rules. Of over 200 bear encounters I’ve had, just about all of them have been peaceful. These bears have taught me that it is possible to coexist peacefully with large predators—provided one is humble.

MEH: Tell us about your next book.

CE: My next book, which has a working title of The Carnivore Way, and will be published by Island Press, is about all of the large carnivores in the West—from Alaska to Mexico, their conservation status, their stories, their ecology, and our relationships with these species. In it I am writing about grizzly bears, lynx, wolverines, wolves, cougars, and jaguars. Like The Wolf’s Tooth, in it I combine science writing and nature writing, provide many field stories, and very solid science. However, my new book will have a stronger public policy focus, as in it I am exploring the environmental laws in the US, Canada, and Mexico, how our human relationships with these carnivores have shaped these laws, and next steps in increasing sustainability of these species. In The Carnivore Way I am weaving together the stories of ranchers and hunters and scientists—and these magnificent animals—to create what I hope will be a handbook for living more sustainably with large carnivores in the West.


One Response to “Wild Thing”

  1. Cristina, thank you so much for your invaluable work and subsequent advocacy for the importance of wolves! I hope your respectful knowledge spreads near and far in Montana and elsewhere!

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