Does Anyone Actually Know How the Environment Works?
I’m not saying that I do, it’s an honest question.
In November 2005 Michael Crichton presented a lecture at the Washington Center for Complexity and Public Policy called “Complexity Theory and Environmental Management“. He used the mishandling of Yellowstone National Park over decades to show that we really have no idea how even simple ecosystems work.
What actually happened at Yellowstone is a cascade of ego and error. But to understand it, we have to go back to the 1890s. Back then it was believed that elk were becoming extinct, and so these animals were fed and encouraged. Over the next few years the numbers of elk in the park exploded. Roosevelt had seen a few thousand animals, and noted they were more numerous than on his last visit.
By 1912, there were 30,000. By 1914, 35,000. Things were going very well. Rainbow trout had also been introduced, and though they crowded out the native cutthroats, nobody really worried. Fishing was great. And bears were increasing in numbers, and moose, and bison.
By 1915, Roosevelt realized the elk had become a problem, and urged “scientific management.” His advice was ignored. Instead, the park service did everything it could to increase their numbers.
The results were predictable.
Antelope and deer began to decline, overgrazing changed the flora, aspen and willows were being eaten heavily and did not regenerate. In an effort to stem the loss of animals, the park rangers began to kill predators, which they did without public knowledge.
They eliminated the wolf and cougar and were well on their way to getting rid of the coyote. Then a national scandal broke out; studies showed that it wasn’t predators that were killing the other animals. It was overgrazing from too many elk. The management policy of killing predators had only made things worse.
And so on and so forth. Every action taken to help, made things worse. Now there’s a similar story out of Australia:
BANGKOK, Thailand – It seemed like a good idea at the time: Remove all the feral cats from a famous Australian island to save the native seabirds.
But the decision to eradicate the felines from Macquarie island allowed the rabbit population to explode and, in turn, destroy much of its fragile vegetation that birds depend on for cover, researchers said Tuesday.
It’s going to cost AU $25 million to fix. How, you ask? By eliminating the rabbits, of course! And the mice and rats, for good measure. Not to worry, though; I’m sure it will work this time.