If we look at our country from its very beginning, we can see a determined effort to eliminate what we consider to be undesirable species, and we’re still—-“Kill that snake!”—at it. Of course, the rational was and sadly is, if a species is a threat to humans, then it must be eliminated, and the threat can be minimal, but any threat is enough to wage a war of extinction. We also included any species that are a threat to domesticated animals, and that took out the wolves, bears, and mountain lions. Yes, we don’t thin out an overabundance, we hunt them down to the last one. Actually, we usually just create functional extinction, which means the part of the ecosystem that particular animal, bird, insect or mammal occupies has such a minimal effect on the natural environment that the species might as well be extinct. It’s easy to look at our ecosystem in Arkansas and point out the functional extinct. We know there are mountain lions in the state, but the hundred or so that are here are too few to be influence in our ecosystem. The same goes for bears. Of course, the gray and red wolves have been totally eliminated.
I think to understand how much difference a good functioning ecosystem adds, we need to look at an environment that has been restored by adding back species that were eliminated. It turns out that the return of the missing species created more of a balanced natural environment than anyone imagined. As you might guess there aren’t many examples, but the return of gray wolves to Yellowstone National Park is one.
In 1995, 41 wild wolves where released in Yellowstone and today there are 11 wolf packs and at least 97 wolves. Of course, the wildlife management folks were elated at the successful restocking, but they were shocked at the results. Not only were the restocking of wolves successful, but the beaver population also took a jump. There was only one beaver dam when the wolves were restocked, and today there are nine dams. It seems elk overgrazed on willow branches kept the beaver from thriving, and as the wolves drove the elk into heavily wooded areas of the park were they could better defend themselves, the willows grew back to feed the beaver.
It turns out the wolves created a ripple effect because the park’s elk population had grown to outstrip the available forage, and the addition of wolves restored the forage and benefits to the overall ecosystem occurred unexpectedly. As the wolves made kill after kill, it brought the elk population under control, and provided carrion for ravens, foxes, bears, and other animals. The expansion of the beavers created standing small lakes where trout and other aquatic creatures multiplied and added to the food chain for bears and other animals.
The question is; can we replicate this ecological success story here in Arkansas? I believe we can and the benefits to our natural environment might shock us. Let’s look at just a couple of problems that we have created by trying to improve on Mother Nature. Wolves, bears, and mountain lions were here and part of our ecosystem, but we have either eliminated or reduced their numbers to the point where they are all functional extinct or completely extinct such as the gray and red wolf. If we made a concentrated effort to restore the gray wolf to Arkansas what would we accomplish? And if we eliminated bear season and returned to the bear state of a hundred years ago and added another several hundred mountain lions, how would our ecosystem respond?
Would we solve any of the problems we see today in wildlife management? I believe we would and we do have problems, such as feral hogs, (CWD) wasting away disease in our deer herd, and the decline of our quail population—-among others. Would restoring the bears, wolves, and mountain lions help solve any of these problems? Yes they would; but let’s consider how. The introduction of these predatory animals would reduce the overpopulation of a number of problem species. Of course, the most obvious would be the out-of-control increase in feral hogs. However, as any hunter who has been in the woods lately will tell you, feral hogs aren’t the only problem we have in wildlife management. The woods are working alive with raccoons, opossums, armadillos, and other ground scavengers. During the time I was writing about mountain lions a few months back, I had a long conversation with a man, who has made a study of North American mountain lions. His overview was that most of the predators such as mountain lions, wolves, and bears took available prey, and raccoon, rabbits, possums, and even dogs were considered prey by these animals.
Of course, the reintroduction of these species can’t just be a few elk on the Buffalo with a hunting season that is one step from hunting in a zoo. No, it must start with protecting the few mountain lions that are in the State along with the bears. Until the Game and Fish Commission puts a moratorium on the killing of mountain lions and stop having a bear season, a balanced ecosystem can’t happen. That’s the first step, but it must be followed by the reintroduction of the gray wolves along with adding to the predators we already have.
Of course the (CWD) deer wasting disease epidemic is caused by having the sick deer spread the disease, and the reintroduction of wolves and mountain lions would dramatically improve the situation by eliminating the sickly deer. Naturally, if the feral hogs were reduced along with the raccoons, possums, and armadillos our quail would return. Another benefit by having wolves in Yellowstone, was a reduction in the large coyote population.
With such a win-win situation it’s hard to see why our Game and Fish Commission is against restoring an ecosystem, which would be a huge benefit to the State’s overall environment. Actually, they found out in Yellowstone the benefits turned out to be vastly greater than even the most optimistic environmentalist predicted. Wouldn’t it be great that if we quit trying to improve on Mother Nature, we tried to mimic what was once here and instead if looking back at being called the Bear State, we once again became the Bear State? It can happen and it will because it’s the right thing to do.
The idea that wolves are a dangerous addition to the environment can be put aside, since Yellowstone National Park has as many visitors each year as the population of Arkansas, and none of these visitors have ever been attacked by wolves.
I’m going to do what I can to help restore Arkansas’s ecosystem and the re-introduction of gray wolves is going to be a prime target. The gray wolves were restored to Yellowstone after the public demanded it by a huge outpouring of supporting comments, and if we want wolves back in Arkansas, we must stand up and be counted. If you would like to help, contact the Game and Fish Commission and ask me for a bumper sticker—shown below.
Richard Mason is a registered professional geologist, downtown developer, former chairman of the Department of Environmental Quality Board of Commissioners, past president of the Arkansas Wildlife Federation, and syndicated columnist. Email richard@ gibraltarenergy.com.