I had the pleasure of listening to Diane Boyd, a noted wolf expert, talk about wolf conservation issues on Steven Rinella’s Meatear Podcast. It is very good info about wolves, including wolf conspiracy theories. One part I found particularly interesting was about the history of Isle Royale, which is experiencing a wolf reintroduction this year. Isle Royale is, of course, home to one of the longest running ecological studies that has examined predator and prey relationships. The study mainly focuses on moose and wolves on the island, but an inbreeding depression reduced the wolf population of the island to two individuals last year.
I have always thought of Isle Royale as being a place of wolves and moose. But wolves came to the island only in the 1949, and moose came only in the early 1900s.
In the podcast with Diane Boyd, she mentions that Isle Royale was originally known for its woodland caribou and Canada lynx. Boyd speculated that moose introduced brainworm to the caribou, but a more likely reason for their disappearance is that woodland caribou are sensitive to human-centered activities. All the logging and mining that happened on Isle Royale could not have done the caribou many favors. The last caribou was documented on the island in 1925.
Canada lynx are not particularly good predators of caribou. They were likely living on snowshoe hares, which are found on the island. Maybe, when snowshoe hares experienced the crash portion of their boom or bust population cycle, the lynx occasionally turned to hunting caribou, as they did in Newfoundland.
If Isle Royale’s fauna had remained the same at the beginning of the twentieth century as it did at the beginning, maybe it never would have become such a great place to study predator and prey population dynamics.
The restoration of wolves to Isle Royale, which is happening as I write this piece, is an attempt to bring back an ecology that dates all the way back to 1949. I have readers who can remember 1949.
We have this idea that conservation is about restoring things to an Eden when things were unmolested, untrammeled, and pure. But what seems to be timeless is ultimately just temporary.
Last night, I was grappling with the concepts of conservation, specifically the idea of rewilding. Rewilding is about restoring organisms to the land that were there at some point. Some think of feral horses in the West as being rewilded, from the Pleistocene though I am greatly skeptical of this idea.
Of late, though, there have been proposal to restore Pleistocene fauna to their former ranges, and if that animal can’t be found exactly, then a facsimile will be brought in.
In the case of North America, African elephants have been proposed as being equivalent of the Columbian and woolly mammoths. African lions might take the place of old Panthera atrox. Some have even suggested that the plains of Texas, which are filling with blackbuck, might be a great place to turn out some cheetahs, thinking of course that Old World cheetahs are somehow the equivalent the long-legged coursing cougars that once roamed the Pleistocene wild of North America.
We don’t really know what killed off all these fantastic beasts of the Pleistocene. I lean more toward rapid warming at the time of the Pleistocene/Holocene boundary, but many reasonable people find some merit in Paul Martin’s “Overkill Hypothesis.” This hypothesis contents that the Siberian hunter-gatherers who came into North America wound up killing off much of the megabeasts, or lacking such evidence of profligate killing, contend that these hunter-gatherers killed off a few keystone species, such as mammoths and mastodons, to cause ecosystems to collapse.
If this hypothesis is correct, there is a moral force for this Pleistocene rewilding concept. Humanity is responsible for killing off the megabeasts, and it is our duty to restore North America to its former glory as the land with the great bison, pachyderms, camels, and equines.
But this takes me back to Isle Royale. Humans certainly disrupted that ecosystem. If we wished to restore Isle Royale to its form ecosystem, we should be shooting off all the moose on the island and turning out woodland caribou from Ontario. We shouldn’t be trapping wolves and turning them loose. We should be trapping Canada lynx instead.
Canada lynx are much rarer in the Upper Midwest than gray wolves are, so by a triage of the conservation needs of the species, it would make more sense to preserve Isle Royale for the lynx.
Of course, that’s not what is being done. The wolf and moose studies are too deeply ingrained in our science and our understanding these two species. And if you were to twist my arm, I’d say choose wolves and moose over caribou and lynx.
But this is logic of Pleistocene rewilding. It is to say that we can somehow turn back the clock on that happened long before North America had cities and agriculture and way long before the continent was divided into nation-states.
Indeed, while we’re theorizing about Pleistocene rewilding, we’re not really coming to terms with that fact that Pre-Columbian rewilding is a project that will only go so far. Yes, we’ll have wolves come back to the Upper Midwest and the Western States.
But no one is seriously considering restoring grizzly bears to Texas or even attempt to bring back wolverines to Michigan.
We cannot handle that idea of wildlife now. That we have managed to hold onto so many wild places and restore so many wildlife species is a certain greatness about the United States. However, this feature is one that always exists in tension, one that must be recognized and fully understood.
Isle Royal in 2019 is not the same as Isle Royal in 1960, which was not the same as Isle Royale when the loggers and the miners came.
And if that one island is so different, imagine how different the entire continent of North America has become since the Pleistocene gave way to the Holocene, which has now giving away to the Anthropocene.
There is a sadness in knowing that things pass, and we certainly have a moral duty to prevent extinction and to preserve what ecosystems we can.
But we should understand that what we’re preserving was never timeless, and even in our attempts at restoration, we aren’t always going back to the known original condition of a place. We often go back to what seemed wondrous and pure and wild.
And if we can understand this simple fact, maybe we can get a handle on what our species continues to do to the planet and the rest of life that resides here with us. We have done much, but we shouldn’t assume that we are preserving any kind of stasis.
I write these words from the northern edge of Appalachian Ohio, awaiting the arrival of the nine-banded armadillo, which will some day come working its way up from North Carolina and Tennessee into Virginia and then West Virginia. Xenarthan, the “strange jointed stranger” with roots in Latin America, it will come scurrying along into this part of the world.
What it may change in our ecosystems, I cannot guess. But it is coming. When it arrives, it will roam where wolves once howled and elk bulls bugled.
And its story on the land will be one to note. It will not be timeless. It will a temporal as the fleetingness of existence, a bit of the faunal guild of the Anthropocene making a name for itself in a new land, just as those Siberian hunters did all those thousands of years ago.