Manufacturing the Balance of NatureWill Naillon and Catherine Thagard

 

Despite the easy familiarity of the term, the "balance of nature" simply does not exist. At least not the utopian flat line balance that most of us think of when pondering the miracles of ecosystems, where predators regulate their own populations and take just the sick and weak animals of their prey species. The only balance of nature that currently exists in North America is a fragile human construction, and it is one that must be constantly monitored and managed to ensure it persists in the face of ever-increasing human impacts.

It would be more accurate to think of nature as a cycle – and a truly remarkable one, at that – rather than a balance. It's a pretty simple concept: plant and animal species of any ecosystem are woven together so closely that anytime one or the other is increased or decreased, all other members of that ecosystem react. As habitat creates vegetative food sources, omnivorous (prey) species multiply. As these species grow in numbers, carnivorous (predator) species numbers increase because their food sources are plentiful. When predator density peaks, prey numbers begin to decline. Lacking food sources, predator populations drop, (for many complex reasons including starvation, disease, or because the females are not healthy enough to produce offspring). During the downturn of animals the habitat would again regenerate itself thus starting the cycle over.

If that's all our fish and wildlife had to contend with, this cycle could very well be self-sustaining: the so called balance of nature that we have idealized. However in the United States, there are more than 300 million people. We build cities and roads in riparian areas, put ski resorts on the mountains and casinos in the deserts. We develop oil and gas fields as dense as subdivisions that cover entire landscapes. As humans continue to multiply and take up more and more habitat, the cycle of natureis disrupted. To think that we can just disassociate ourselves from the equation without a dramatic reduction or elimination of our species is both irresponsible and arrogant. Whether we hunt, fish, use any form of power or just displace wildlife by our very existence, we are all a factor.

Which leads us to the raging debate in the west over whether or not to manage wolves through regulated hunting. On one end of the extremist spectrum we have the "smoke a pack a day" anti-wolf crowd, while at the other we have the pro-wolf "don't touch a single hair on their beautiful heads" folks. And they are both wrong.

The reintroduction of the grey wolf to its historic habitat in the Northwestern United States is seen by most conservationists, hunters and non-hunters alike, as righting a historic wrong. But we can't just slap each other on the backs for a job well done and walk away. Despite the rational sounding arguments often heard, "letting nature take its course" is no longer an option. The human population isn't likely to slow down its epic march in our lifetime and since the loss of any species, whether it is deer, elk, wolves, cottontail rabbits, or even black-footed ferrets is both socially unacceptable and morally irresponsible, we must manage every one of them for sustainability. But let's not forget that they are all inexorably intertwined in the cycle of nature we just discussed. This means that if you manage one species, you have to manage them all – wolves included.

We manage wildlife for our own needs (i.e. agriculture or livestock production), for social responsibility (like the wolf reintroduction), because of our displacement of ecosystems, and because we are bound to do so by the commitments we have agreed to with the Endangered Species Act. And whether we like it or not, whether we personally participate or not, hunting is a very important management tool that enables the wildlife professionals of our game and fish agencies to protect, and when necessary, restore our manufactured balance of nature.

In 1933 the great conservationist Aldo Leopold perhaps expressed it most eloquently: "The hope of the future lies not in curbing the influence of human occupancy – it is already too late for that – but in creating a better understanding of the extent of that influence and a new ethic for its governance."