Is man’s safeguarding of nature always a good thing? Can lack of knowledge and scientific objectivity obfuscate reality?
Not so long ago, I read ‘State of Fear,’ a novel by Michael Crichton. The novel, while not realistic, does trace the actual history of man’s intervention in Yellowstone and, with legitimate research, Crichton presents the negative side of man’s well-intentioned meddling in nature.
In the novel, Crichton continued the debate on global warming for those who think all the facts are in. The facts are not all in on global warming but environmentalists insist on acting as if they have all the facts. History has shown that it can be a dangerous way to think.
One of the issues he dealt with in his book and which supports that contention was the effect environmentalists have had on Yellowstone National Park.
Environmentalists have assumed the mission of preserving and protecting Yellowstone.
Crichton said the ecosystem was forever changed by the environmentalists and not for the better because of that intervention. Facts back that up.
Yellowstone Park, Crichton explained, was the first wilderness on earth to be set aside as a natural preserve by President Ulysses Grant who set aside two million acres, creating Yellowstone National Park.
No one at the time had any experience preserving wilderness because the need did not exist.
When Theodore Roosevelt visited the park in 1903, he saw thousands of elk, buffalo, black bear, deer, mountain lions, grizzlies, coyotes, wolves, and bighorn sheep. He wanted them protected. The Park Service was established soon after and their role was to maintain the park in its original condition.
Within a decade, the teeming landscape that Roosevelt saw was gone forever. The park managers were to blame.
The managers were charged with keeping the park in pristine condition and had taken a series of steps that they thought were in the best interest of preserving the park and its animals.
The early park managers mistakenly believed that elk were about to become extinct. So they tried to increase the elk herds within the park by eliminating predators. To that end, they shot and poisoned all the wolves in the park. They prohibited Indians from hunting in the park, though Yellowstone was a traditional hunting ground.
Now protected, the elk herds exploded and ate so much of specific trees and grasses that the ecology of the area began to change. The elk ate the trees that the beavers used to make dams, so the beavers vanished. That was when the managers discovered beavers were vital to the overall water management of the region.
When the beavers disappeared, the meadows dried up; the trout and otter vanished; soil erosion increased; and the park ecology changed even further.
By the 1920s it had become abundantly clear there were too many elk, so the rangers began to shoot them by the thousands. But the change in plant ecology seemed to be permanent; the old mix of trees and grasses did not return.
It also became increasingly clear that the Indian hunters of old had a valuable ecological influence on the park lands by keeping down the numbers of elk, moose, and bison. This belated recognition came as part of a more general understanding that native Americans had strongly shaped the “untouched wilderness.”
The “untouched wilderness” was nothing of the sort. Human beings on the North American continent had exerted a huge influence on the environment for thousands of years—burning plains grasses, modifying forests, thinning specific animal populations, and hunting others to extinction.
Grizzlies were protected, then killed off by the environmental caretakers. Wolves were killed off and are now being brought back.
Animal research involving field study and radio collars was halted, then resumed after certain species were declared endangered.
Rainbow trout were introduced in the 1970s, soon killing off the native cutthroat species.
A policy of fire prevention was instituted with no understanding of the regenerative effects of fire.
When the fire policy was finally reversed, thousands of acres burned so hotly that the ground was sterilized, and the forests did not grow back without reseeding.
The ecology of Yellowstone has forever been changed by the environmentalists who tout their success as they try to recover from their mistakes.