01 March 2011


WOLVES IN PARADISE. For many years I've been one of those hard-core naturalists who felt little sympathy for those who opposed the reintroduction of gray wolves to the American west. For the past ten thousand years, along with mountain lions and grizzleys, wolves have been the top predators in any wildnerness unspoiled by human activity. Yet we saw fit to murder wolves and mountain lions by the thousands in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, driving them to near extinction in the contiguous U.S. states. Hunting these magnificent predators, combined with the destruction of their native habitat, appeared to spell their doom. In the 1990s, the only free-ranging wolves in the U.S. roamed northern Minnesota, where dairy farmers and conservationists had formed an alliance to preserve the wolves' domain, while safeguarding the farmers' way of life and reimbursing them for any losses. It wasn't perfect, but it worked.

Taking a cue from this success, in the mid-1990s wolves from Canada were released in Yellowstone National Park, thus re-filling the top niche in the food web there. Without the presence of predators, prey species overpopulate, overgraze, and experience cycles of starvation without human intervention. The effort to feed Yellowstone's elk, and the establishment of hunting seasons to cull elk, deer and antelope, would be completely unnecessary if we hadn't eliminated their predators in the first place. Nature was in a state of dynamic balance for millenia before we populated the continent.

The Yellowstone wolves thrived, and other packs were introduced in wild mountainous areas in Idaho and northwestern Montana. Wolf numbers increased to the point of raising legitimate concern among the region's cattle ranchers, who began to experience livestock losses as wolf packs multiplied and expanded beyond their original range. The stage was set for a showdown between ranchers and hunters on one side, and conservationists and wildlife biologists on the other side. But then something miraculous happened.

As documented in the PBS program Wolves in Paradise (filmed in the Paradise Valley north of Yellowstone, and viewable in its entirety at the link), thoughtful individuals from both sides began to talk together. In Montana, there is an increasing number of ranchers, especially among those middle-aged or younger, who love nature and respect wolves. And there is an increasing number of conservationists who empathize with ranchers' concerns over predation and cattle loss. In a display of cooperation that would have been impossible only twenty years ago, these individuals are informing themselves on, and sometimes inventing, ways for humans to coexist with wolves and other predators. Alternative forms for discouraging wolves away from cattle herds are being tested successfully -- for instance, patrolling range riders who present a human presence, discouraging wolves from the area of grazing. Further, an unlikely but common sense agreement was struck between Montana Game, Fish and Wildlife officials, ranchers and environmentalists. The former ceiling on wolf numbers was removed, and in its place an agreement was crafted in which ranchers are free to kill any specific wolves (usually one or two from a pack) which are preying on their herds. Over time, this has the effect of teaching the surviving wolves to stay away from cattle.

Here is the unexpected and astonishing side-effect -- wolf packs are highly territorial. When a pack has become accustomed to avoiding cattle, it will still protect its territory (and the cattle) from other, non-trained packs which might seek to invade the area. The wolves themselves become the guardians of ranchers' cattle. The effect isn't magical or permanent. Every year or two, when a rancher notices the loss of a few calves, he can selectively and legally cull another wolf or two from the pack, thus strengthening the negative reinforcement against feeding on cattle. In fact, ranchers are trained by field biologists to use radio collar tracking devices in order to locate the specific wolves they are after. By every report it appears to be working. Yes, a few wolves die, and that saddens me. But it is a small sacrifice in the larger scheme of things, in which rural residents are learning to understand and protect predators, and in return are respected for their willingness to meet conservationists halfway.

I heartily invite the reader to view the entire Wolves in Paradise program. Along with another, similarly encouraging program cited below, seeing the evolution from confrontation to cooperation in order to preserve both nature (including top predators) and the ranching/farming way of life, has been an eye-opener for me. For the first time, I am cautiously optimistic that humans and predators can indeed learn to coexist.

The second PBS program I mentioned is, unfortunately, only available for viewing on DVD at this time. It is called Lords of Nature: Life in a Land of Great Predators. Like Wolves in Paradise, Lords of Nature is beautiful to watch, and documents human interactions not only with wolves, but also with mountain lions in several parts of the West, as well as in Minnesota. The role of top predators in "restoring and maintaining ecosystems and biodiversity" is spelled out, and here too, there is a striking level of cooperation between those who once fiercely debated each other over the fate of native large predators. I've known since I was a child that predators keep prey species healthy by culling out sick, aged or crippled members from the herd. Now that knowledge is gaining new credence, alongside the cultural and financial realities of life in the rural West. If I locate a link to the entire program, I'll provide it. For now, here are links the the introcutory three minutes and the concluding two and a half minutes. All the best material is in between, so it's likely I'll spring for the DVD. Deep sigh of hope.

SPACE TOURISM. In yesterday's NYTimes there was an article which began with these words -- "If all goes as planned, within a couple of years tourists will be rocketing into space aboard a Virgin Galactic spaceplane [SpaceShipTwo] -- paying $200,000 for about four minutes of weightlessness -- before coming back down for a landing on a New Mexico runway. Sitting in the next seat could be a scientist working on a research experiment. Science, even more than tourism, could turn out to be big business for Virgin and other companies that are aiming to provide short rides above the 62-mile altitude that marks the official entry into outer space, eventually on a daily basis."

But Virgin isn't the only game in town --- "Another suborbital company, XCOR Aerospace of Mojave, CA, has been charging $95,000 a seat for tourists. XCOR's Lynx spaceplane (see image below) carries just two people -- the pilot and the paying passenger -- so each flight will carry a experiment and an institute scientist .... Neither company has yet announced when commercial flights will begin, but eventually SpaceShipTwo could fly once or twice a day, and the Lynx is designed for up to four flights a day."

Given the prohibitive cost of getting personnel and experiments aboard NASA Space Shuttles, and the imminent demise of the Space Shuttle program, these developments couldn't come at a better time. One of my life dreams is to travel into space. $200,000 is exorbitant, and even $95,000 is pretty steep, but my hope is that prices will drop as competition rises among the half dozen companies with suborbital vehicles under development. Hey, everyone needs a dream.

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