Writing in the January 2012 issue of Biological Conservation, David Mech, the worlds most famous and respected wolf researcher, officially upended a meme that has informed many things that most people understood about wolves in the northern rockies. Is Science In Danger of Sanctifying the Wolf?
On the right ------->, David Mech pondering how his testimony might be deliberately misrepresented. Senior Wolf Research Scientist USGS Founder International Wolf Center 55 years studying wolves Author of The Wolves of Isle Royal and 9 other books and numerous articles on the subject.
Based not on new research but on an informed summation of what's been learned over the past decade Mech's peer reviewed article deserves a wider readership than the small scientific community it is aimed at. The peer reviewers were S.Barber-Meyer, J. Berger, M.Hebblewhite, Dr.R. McNulty, D.W. Smith, and three anonymous reviewers. All respected established scientists in the field of wolf and wildlife research. One can guess who the anonymous three might well be. Mech's reason for writing to other scientists is because much of the misinformation printed in the popular press is at least partially based on statements from scientists, which would all be well and good except that in the real world wildlife managers have a job to do. Scientists shouldn't slide into the role of advocacy. Many scientists, including Mech in his younger years, have slipped over that line to the dark side and become advocates for the species they study.
With wolf recovery has come an increased polarization between those laypeople who revere the animal and those who revile it. Establishing a more accurate public and scientific image of the wolf is important so that authorities can better manage the species and promote accurate public understanding about the rationale for various kinds of wolf management.
The specific meme that Mech addresses is the idea that wolves are some kind of magic cure-all to "fix" a broken ecosystem via trophic cascades.
.....at the very least, scientists now disagree about whether wolf related behaviorally mediated trophic cascades in Yellowstone are really occurring.......... At most, that well-publicized claim may not be correct at all.
No matter what your favorite hobby horse of wolf affects are, be prepared to toss them out the window. Coyotes population decline, willow growth, beaver, song birds, insects, aspen, "re-watering", landscape of fear, even elk population decline, all maybe not occurring at all, or due to factors totally unrelated to wolves. Science is supposed to begin with questions not answers. The larger question is why. Why have some scientists and just about the entire cohort of "science writers" attempted to give us and most likely themselves, a nuanced view? Bias. Pro wolf advocacy caused even scientists to perhaps make assumptions. Twenty scientific articles attempting to link wolves to vegetation growth is quite a few. One would think a good scientist would try to find mistakes in his own work. Apparently some did. Twenty seven wolf NGOs! That's a lot of fund raising. As one of the reviewers of the article stated,
‘‘ecologists (and particularly conservation biologists) do seem obsessed to the point of blindness with predator-induced trophic cascades.’’
Scientists and advocates sometimes have contradictory goals. A scientist is searching for scientific truth, or as close as he or she can come to it. An advocate is presenting you with perhaps part of the truth so to sway you to his way of thinking. Below is a great example of the skewed portrait painted of wolf reintroduction. Click on photo for the full graphic. On the left is a very weird and evil looking elk on a desolate landscape, on the right butterflies flutter and songbirds sing while the heroic wolf chews on an elk carcass. We now know most of the post wolf info on the right to be at best unproven, and perhaps just plain untrue. It seems humorous now but when combined with very slanted stories in normally respected news sources a meme is built up that is hard to overcome no matter how false or even funny.
Click here to see the full National Geo illustration, text makes for interesting reading too.
In an interview Mech states that scientific conclusions may "vary from outright dishonesty to not even knowing your bias is getting in the way,". Because the meme of a trophic cascade in Yellowstone is so embedded in textbooks and popular media, it may never die, even if untrue. Mech's reluctance to jump to conclusions might well stem from his early work with wolves, (on Isle Royal and in Minnesota) when he was under the mentorship of Durward Allen. Mech wrote a very popular article in National Geographic about the balance of nature and wolves based on three years of wolf and moose populations. If he'd waited just four more years he'd of seen the wild gyrations both populations have experienced ever since.
Two decades later after observing wolves and moose and whitetail in Minnesota, Mech denounced the "balance of nature" writing in (National Wildlife 23(1):54-59) he said nature "far from always being ‘balanced,’ ratios of wolves and prey animals can fluctuate wildly – and sometimes catastrophically". (link no longer available)
The paper is well worth a read. I liked the importation of 129 captive bread beaver into the Northern Yellowstone Slough Creek drainage, never heard much about that in the newspapers. Might have something to do with the increase in beaver from zero. Also the scientific peer reviewed study of how many cow/calf predations actually are accounted for by ranchers (One out of eight) Now that would certainly affect a ranchers outlook, compensation might not look so great if you were paid a dollar out of eight. Have there been any other scientific studies on ratio of confirmed wolf kills to actual? The lopsided telling of the story of the wolf is another aspect of the problem this paper seeks to address. While it's true beaver populations have increased dramatically since the reintroduction of the wolf all newspaper accounts fail to mention those 129 introduced beaver. I'm not saying that bringing them in and dumping them in the creek is the reason they swam upstream and recolonized Northern Yellowstone, but it sure might bear mention in a story about wolves returning beaver to the Park. I'm not trying to argue the wolf debate. (not here now) what I'm trying to show is that very credible respected scientists have very strong reservations about things that I often hear bandied about as "facts". To understand our current situation with so many states assuming management of wolves, now is a good time for a broader view. At his office at the International Wolf Center, Mech keeps a file, it's labeled "Wolf to Save the World" whenever he reads a newspaper or magazine that is obviously slanted and views the wolf through rose colored glasses he sticks the article in that file. I'd think the number of articles written about wolves over the past ten years that have escaped finding a home in that file must be fairly few.
Canis Lupis IUCN red list
David Mech Wiki entry
Article in Star Tribune