By Bob Ferris
The New York Times op-ed by Arthur Middleton questioning the strength of evidence in Yellowstone of wolf-generated trophic cascades and urging more cautious messaging on trophic cascades by conservation groups and wolf advocates has spawned a fire-storm of debate. And that is good and healthy in terms of what science should do and also in terms of raising public awareness about the complexity of ecosystems and ecological interactions. The public should know that simple models about ecosystems are illustrative of how a set of processes might interact rather than a set of rules that ecosystems must always obey. Ecosystems and ecology are complicated and that is why many of us are drawn to this discipline.
This whole debate reminds me of the old “tastes great, less filling” beer commercials we used to see on TV. This is not to diminish the importance of either of these experimentally supported points of view but rather to put them in perspective. Certainly both parties to the debate have arguments for their particular view point and the reality is that beer can taste great and be less filling. And likewise ecosystems can be driven simultaneously by top-down and bottom-up forces.
Now anti-wolf forces can and will gravitate to this debate with the idea of gleaning material arguments for why wolves should not have been reintroduced or recovered, but they should remember that neither of the folks in those dated commercials hates beer. In point of fact, the strength of their debate is influenced by their strong feelings about beer and the same is similarly true about wolves and wolf biologists.
Ecological theory and ecosystem models are made better by healthy debate. Those leaning towards the bottom-up camp improve their lens by being challenged by the top-down theorist and vice versa. In addition, the public should learn some from this unfolding debate about the way ecosystems and science work. And anti-wolf factions who want to make hay about this need to remember that both sides of the beverage debate held beers firmly in their grasps. All in this particular debate feel that wolves are strong and necessary actors in this and other wild places and none of them subscribe to the notion that wolf recovery should not take place.
Let’s raise a glass to the wolf.