Hickel Was Right;
Nature Shouldn't Run Wild

Craig Medred / Outdoors / Anchorage Daily News / April 13, 2003


HAWAII -- The annual cost of the effort to exterminate the tree Miconia calvescen on the island of Maui runs $2.5 million, according to Maui No Ka Oi magazine.

The few hundred thousand dollars Alaska wants to spend to manipulate populations of Canis lupis pales by comparison -- at least economically.

Politically, of course, it's all another matter.

Cropping populations of Canis lupis -- the North America wolf -- to help Alaska moose populations increase is considered a bad thing by many Americans. But efforts to render Miconia calvescens -- a small, rain forest tree -- extinct in the 50th state are generally considered a good thing.

The National Park Service even has a Miconia hit squad here. The job of the Exotic Plant Management Team is to try to wipe out Miconia and a variety of other plants wherever possible. No thought is given to the idea of letting nature take its course.

Some readers might remember the big fuss made in Alaska when former Alaska Gov. Wally Hickel supported wolf control by uttering the now famous proclamation that "you can't just let nature run wild."

This could, however, by the motto for the Park Service in the islands. In an effort to maintain the first ecosystem to evolve on these relatively new volcanic rock piles jutting out of the Pacific Ocean, the federal agency is fighting a war to hold off all sorts of new plants that would like to take over.

For suggesting such human meddling with nature in Alaska, Hickel was lambasted by those arm-chair-expert, pseudo-ecologists who view wolves as big, cuddly, misunderstood dogs looking for love. Those experts understood there is nothing wrong with letting nature run wild.

And there is nothing wrong with letting nature run wild.

As you read this, in fact, the same National Park Service that is out to kill Miconia on Maui is letting nature run wild in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. And because of that, it is quite possible wolves will exterminate the Mentasta caribou herd. That herd has decreased from more than 3,000 animals in the 1980s to 330 at last count.

Whether the caribou will all disappear no one knows. Ecologists have never witnessed a case in which wolves eliminated or helped eliminate a portion of their prey. Scientists have witnessed cases where wolves helped push prey species to very low numbers, but in those cases one of two things happened:

Wolf numbers too, began to decline because of prey shortages, and wolves and their prey eventually stabilized at low numbers. This is the case now in some parts of Alaska and is a good part of the argument for manipulating wolf numbers in those areas.

Or wolf numbers declined because of food shortages, and as wolf numbers went down, prey populations rebounded. This was the case in Isle Royale National Park, where wolf research has been under way for decades in an effort to determine what does happen when nature runs wild.

So far, what has been discovered in the island park is that nature see-saws through time. But Isle Royale is a unique situation. The wolves and moose are isolated in what is essentially a single-predator, single-prey system. Isle Royale wolves do eat some beavers, some foxes and, occasionally each other, but they largely depend upon moose.

The same cannot be said for the wolves in Wrangell-St. Elias. This is a multiple-predator, multiple-prey system. The wolves don't depend solely upon caribou. They feed on moose and salmon, and maybe the occasional bison, beaver or bear.

What this means is that the wolf population might find enough food to remain large and healthy even as it hunts one of its prime prey species ---- the Mentasta caribou -- out of existence. Were people doing the caribou killing in the park, everyone would, no doubt, be in a dither about whether the Mentasta caribou are genetically unique and should for that reason be saved.

Because wolves are doing the killing, scientists monitoring the situation seem content to let the experiment run its course in the belief Mentasta caribou, like the wolves of Denali National Park and Preserve, are genetically the same as similar animals elsewhere in Alaska.

Thus a localized extinction is irrelevant. The caribou will be gone, but their ecological niche will be left open. Other caribou, from Alaska caribou herds that shrink and grow with regularity, will one day find that niche and repopulate the Mentasta range. Or so the thinking goes.

Such a repopulation might take decades or centuries, but who's counting?

The more important question is this: Do Alaskans want to approach wildlife management in this way all across the state? Do they want to let nature run wild even if that means there will be large sections of the state where it becomes difficult to see any big, wild animals for lengthy periods?

This can happen. Severe winters and predation by wolves and bears have been shown to knock prey populations to low levels where predation can then hold them for a long time. The upper Yentna River drainage is at this time one good example. The land there in winter seems as devoid of life as a desert.

That is the way it is when moose densities get down to one moose for every three or four square miles.

Maybe this a good thing too. Maybe nature has some grand plan far too complicated for any of us to understand. Maybe this all works out for the better over the course of eons, although you've got to wonder given all the species Mother Nature has rendered extinct.

Nature running wild ran the dinosaurs into their graves forever. The National Park Service, along with most ecologists, seems pretty well convinced that nature running wild would do the same thing to many of the indigenous species here.

The first arrivals on this new landform, you see, evolved largely free of competition. They evolved to fit into every ecological niche but not to fight to hold it. Thus they were immediately in trouble when the planet's peskiest migrants -- humans -- finally made it to the islands 1,500 or so years ago. Humans brought with them plants and animals that had evolved in competition with other plants and animals.

These hardier species, and the ones that followed, have been a threat to native island species ever since, because the new arrivals just want to run wild. That is, after all, the natural order of things. Every species, including humans, has the inclination to run wild.

What's interesting about us, however, is how we approach that instinct. We will go to great lengths to stop nature from running wild in one place, while arguing that nature is so all-knowing that we shouldn't dare to tamper with it in some other place.

It reminds me of watching one of those advocates of the balance of nature pour chemicals on her nice, green lawn just to make sure nature doesn't go running wild in the back yard. After all, at some level, everyone knows a place where Wally Hickel was right.

You can't just let nature run wild, because if you did the weeds would take over the property, the rodents would seize the house, and the mosquitoes might simply eat you alive.


Outdoors editor Craig Medred is an opinion columnist.
He can be reached at cmedred@adn.com or 907-257-4588.

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