(Originally posted 1/16/17 on Read With The Gringa)
Nature and technology, they are not mutually exclusive passions. In fact, our planet may now be facing challenges that will require a marriage of the two in order for nature to be protected, restored and preserved. Whether it be strengthening endangered species populations or protecting habitat, nature lovers who may see the advances of civilization as a threat, might now experience an ideological dilemma. Because it is technology that must be used to save that which naturalists love.
The U.S. National Park Service (NPS) is using SMART collar technology to track and study wolves. The gray wolves of Denali National Park and Preserve are sporting canine-customized “Fitbit” type collars so scientists can study how they patrol their territories, raise their pups, and hunt. Is such expense worth the investment? Can the world live without gray wolves? I mean, sure, it would be a sad thing if they ceased to exist but are they important enough to invest great time and expense to preserve their existence?
In 1978 the gray wolf was listed as a threatened and endangered species in 48 U.S. states. This has occurred due to man shooting, trapping or poisoning them virtually into oblivion. This, despite the fact that there are no known accounts of gray wolves attacking humans in modern history and occurrences of attacking livestock have been extremely rare. And, in such cases, by law the government has to reimburse farmers and ranchers for any livestock loss. Why, then, has man targeted the gray wolf with such hatred and violence? Who knows. But the gringa thinks we owe the gray wolf an apology. But do we owe the species the effort and expense of re-populating the country with gray wolves?
We do. A world without wolves is an eco-system out of balance and possibly doomed to failure. Let’s face it, although most naturalists are lovers of the peacefully co-existing grazers like white-tail deer, the reality is that predators are just as important if we want to keep herds of white-tail deer healthy. And wolves do so much more than that.
In Yellowstone National Park a cascade of devastating effects followed the eradication of wolves in the mid-1920s. Elk populations became over-abundant which caused habitat damage due to overgrazing. This affected streams through erosion as groves of native trees and shrubbery were over-browsed. As the waters became more shallow, they warmed. The result was that many native fish species disappeared or became extremely scarce. As the trees and shrubbery declined, so did the native bird and beaver populations.
One species that did thrive with the disappearance of wolves were the coyotes. Too many coyotes meant fewer gophers and rodents. And, as coyotes glutted on small animals, other mid-level predators, like foxes and raptors, began to decline. With wolves missing from the eco-system, the animals who dine on the leftovers of their kills had to migrate elsewhere. Yellowstone also saw declines in the number of eagles, ravens, and even bears.
So what is life like without wolves? Decimated grasslands and tree copses, shallow rivers and streams, lots of coyotes and deer and little else. And, eventually, even the deer and coyotes will decline due to health problems related to over-population.
The good news is that mankind can right such wrongs with the right use of the right technology. In 1995 a program re-introduced wolves to areas of the American West. The results are dreams come true for every naturalist. The ecological balance was restored. Rivers and streams were re-shaped. Songbird populations blossomed. Trout and other fish flourished. The entire landscape of Yellowstone was re-structured into a healthier version, resembling its former self.
SMART collars deliver knowledge to researchers about wolf behavior, physiology, movements and interaction with ecology. This information can be used to develop better conservation measures. Developed at the University of California, Santa Cruz, these collars provide GPS information, 3D movement data, and distinct signatures for each wolf like acceleration, sleeping and eating habits. The metabolic rate of each animal can be calculated so that researchers know how many calories an individual wolf needs to consume for the expenditures made in activity. Scientists are even able to measure their oxygen levels. The information collected is answering questions such as what was the cause for an incident of pack starvation in Denali.
Saving wolf populations is just one piece of the save-the-planet puzzle. If you are a naturalist, the key to success in your mission may very well lie in technology that you might have typically been hesitant to embrace. The gringa sees the superheroes of tomorrow as being able to live in a tent as well as able to design and use sophisticated electronic equipment. Tomorrow’s planetary saviours need to study STEM disciplines as much as they need to study agriculture and wildlife.
Image Credit: National Park Service