Thursday, January 29, 2009

trophic cascade: no wolves = ecodeath

J, a Friend of Ask Nicola, was in town a few weeks ago and came over for dinner. We talked about nature in the Pacific Northwest. J said she'd like to see the Hoh rain forest. Kelley said, Oooh, yes, it's amazing. I said, Tuh, the place is a fucking desert. They both looked at me. I tried to explain what I meant, that to me it felt dead, the opposite of a fecund rain forest--just trees and fern and (the last time I was there) a truly irritating junco that would not shut up. But I was tired and inarticulate. And now here's this article in the Seattle Times that explains everything.

THE HOH RAIN FOREST — No trace remains of the wolves whose howls ricocheted for millennia down the lush valleys of the Olympic Peninsula.

Settlers and trappers killed them all in little more than three decades.

But the loss of the stealthy predators in the early 1900s left a hole in the landscape that scientists say they are just beginning to grasp. The ripples extend throughout what is now Olympic National Park, leading to a boom in elk populations, overbrowsing of shrubs and trees, and erosion so severe it has altered the very nature of the rivers, says a team of Oregon State University biologists. The result, they argue, is an environment that is less rich, less resilient, and — perhaps — in peril.

"We think this ecosystem is unraveling in the absence of wolves," said OSU ecologist William Ripple.


Beschta was searching for cottonwoods in the Hoh River rain forest on a day when clouds and sunshine chased each other across the sky. Centurion cedars unfurled their boughs. Raindrops glistened on waist-high ferns, and a carpet of moss muffled the sound of footfalls. Few corners of the state are less touched by man, and the idea that an ecological crisis was unfolding seemed laughable.

"To most people, this would look pretty pristine," Beschta conceded.

But decades spent studying forests and rivers have taught him to notice things most people don't.

Those "fern prairies," for example, shouldn't occupy vast swaths of forest floor. Nor should you be able to see 100 yards in any direction. "This looks like a well-kept lawn," Beschta said with dismay.

We don't know what we're doing when we fuck with things. We shouldn't fuck with things. Bring back the wolves.

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