I’m a mediocre gardener. I like plants okay. And I do know the basics about what they need: water, air, sunlight, affection. But I dole out too little of that last ingredient. I’ll plant some tomatoes or lettuce or swiss chard, then just let ‘em be unless I notice something I want to eat.
“Shouldn’t you water them?” K will ask after several days without rain. Or, “Shouldn’t you weed? They look cramped.”
“Naw,” I say. “I want ‘em to grow up tough. I don’t wanna coddle ‘em.”
Besides, it’s never long before a half-starved deer sneaks into our yard and gnaws everything to the ground. Strips our saplings bare. Masticates flowers that were a day or two from bloom.
We’ve been trying to grow fruit trees, with the idea that our yard could be a happier place for critters of all sorts. There’d be more shelter, more shade, more to eat…
… and those are just the local benefits. There’d also be more oxygen for everyone to breathe: in Lab Girl, Hope Jahren writes, “Every single year, at least one tree is cut down in your name. Here’s my personal request to you: if you own any private land at all, plant one tree on it this year. If you are renting a place with a yard, plant a tree in it and see if your landlord notices. If he does, insist to him that it was always there.”
Every time our twiggy little tree-lets put out new shoots, though, a deer will munch them away.
Deer are like us that way. Sacrificing the future — which would benefit everyone — for a bit of ease today. Nobody wants to pay an extra couple bucks in tax for gasoline, so we might all get wrecked by climate change.
This can be frustrating. Stepping into the yard to appraise the wreckage yet again. But I’m not interested in deer kills. I want to bring back wolves.
From Carl Safina’s Beyond Words:
“There is no peace for prey in a land without predators,” Doug Smith tells me. “There are only alternate sufferings.” Either predation makes them die or starvation makes them die. Predation is dramatic and awful, but starvation causes more widespread suffering, is more prolonged.
As the Yellowstone elk populations irrupted in the absence of wolves, wildlife managers started killing elk or shipping them to places as far-flung as Arizona and Alberta, whose elk had been completely shot out. From about 1930 to 1970, Yellowstone National Park shipped and killed thousands of elk. When that stopped, the elk again surged.
Famished elk and deer so thoroughly scrounged Yellowstone’s willows and aspen seedlings that everything from fish to birds had their lives reordered. No wolves meant too many elk; too many elk meant almost no food for beavers, which meant almost no beaver ponds for fish, which meant…
As elk fear wolves, one might say that trees and rivers fear elk. In this classic essay “Thinking Like a Mountain,” Aldo Leopold observed, “I have lived to see state after state extirpate its wolves. I have watched the face of many a newly wolfless mountain, and seen… every edible bush and seedling browsed… to death… every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddlehorn… Too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run… Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf, long known among mountains, but seldom perceived among men.” He offered, with memorable resonance, “Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf.”
Environments, just like animals, can be sick. An environment in which humans have murdered all the large predators? Where prey species flourish, overbreeding & overeating (as a population) till they stumble around rib-jutting and delirious from hunger? Where there’s little food left over for less voracious herbivores, who soon starve in turn…?
That environment is ill.
In The Serengeti Rules, Sean Carroll explains the similarities between environmental illness and the cellular or physiological disruptions that cause human disease. For instance, if your body starts cranking out too much of one thing — like Bloomington’s deer or Yellowstone’s elk — you should have that checked out. You’ve got cancer.
Our local deer probably wouldn’t be happy if they knew I’d compared them to cancer cells. But the analogy (used in Carroll’s book) works pretty well. For instance, nearly all of us have cancerous cells in our body. We rely on our immune systems to find these and snuff them out. It’s when our immune system fails that a burgeoning mass of cells will form a tumor, and that is when doctors recommend knives and poison.
Nobody wants chemotherapy. It’s not fun. Doctors only use it because, if cancer cells evade your immune system and go berserk, there’s no other cure.
Similarly, I’d prefer we not have human hunters creeping through the night & putting down deer with guns. I want wolves.
A zoologist named Robert Paine designed the first experiment to measure the harms caused by the absence of a key predator — just like humans are more likely to develop cancer while immunocompromised, environments without predators more often get sick. Carroll provides a charmingly accessible description of this experiment:
Twice a month every spring and summer, and once a month in the winter, Paine kept returning to Mukkaw to repeat his starfish-throwing ritual. On one twenty-five-foot-long by six-foot-tall stretch of rock, he removed all the starfish. On an adjacent stretch, he let nature take its course. On each plot, he counted the number and calculated the density of the inhabitants, tracking fifteen species in all.
. . .
The results of this simple experiment were astonishing. They showed that one predator could control the composition of species in a community through its prey — affecting both animals it ate as well as animals and plants that it did not eat.
This initial experiment has been repeated many times. In each case, whether the apex predators are starfish, or sea otters, or fish, or ants, or wolves, when the predator is removed, ecological diversity plummets. Carroll includes some revealing numbers:
While on sabbatical in New Zealand, Paine investigated another intertidal community at the north end of a beach near Auckland. There, he found a different starfish species called Stichaster australis that preyed on the New Zealand green-lipped mussel, the same species exported to restaurants around the world. Over a period of nine months Paine removed all starfish from one 400-square-foot area and left an adjacent, similar plot alone. He saw immediate and striking effects. The treated area quickly began to be dominated by mussels, which extended their range by about 40 percent down toward the low tide mark. Six of twenty other species initially present vanished in just eight months; within fifteen months the majority of space was occupied solely by the mussels. Interestingly, this expansion occurred despite the abundance of another large mussel predator (a sea snail).
I don’t think anyone is counting plant & animal species in my home town — suburbs aren’t known for their ecological diversity even in the best of times, and there are constant small-scale perturbations as people sculpt their lawns and gardens — but our deer population has almost certainly caused a variety of harm.
My tomatoes get eaten, sure, but so what? After all, I can buy more at the grocery store. But groundhogs and beavers don’t have that option. The diversity of plants in our parks must be falling, too. We’ll accumulate more and more of those few trees that deer don’t like to eat.
And our deer population changes the way people think about nature. This worries me most, and is something that I’ve watched happen for high school students over the course of a year. Our zombie-like hordes of stumbling, emaciated, voracious deer give people the idea that nature is something that should be conquered. Why not trammel the whole world into a manicured English garden?
Wolves would fix that.
The distribution of plant and animal life in our town would grow healthier. When people chanced to see the now-more-fearful deer, they’d behold more majestic specimens — human hunters cull the biggest, baddest bucks, but wolves go for the weakest. And the deer themselves would not be subject to such a miserable existence, aching and delirious from incipient starvation until suddenly stung by the bullet of a silenced gun.
Of course, wolves are scary. I get that. I have two small children. But the very dangerousness of wolves could bring other beneficial changes. My town, home to a major state university, has more than its fair share of alcohol-fueled misadventure.
After the first few drunken frat dudes get eaten by wolves, I have to imagine the others would show more restraint.