Have you ever wanted all mosquitos to just go away and die?
Well, that's how the new arrivals to the modern day United States at the turn of the century felt about wolves. So much so that by the 1920s, the grey wolf had been completely eliminated by man from even the vast protected wilderness of Yellowstone National Park. 1
Besides being generally feared for ages by humans over their capacity to kill, wolves were targeted by people at this time for a variety of other reasons as well. Their hides were warm and sold well in European markets (where wolves had already been hunted to near-extinction in the previous century) 2 and as predators the wolves were thought to be major threats to livestock. 3 It was profitable in seemingly every direction.
With the wolves gone, the people had fatter pockets and they and their livestock had less to worry about, but the same was true for other large mammals in the United States, such as the 700+ lb. elk.
With its greatest predator gone, elk populations grew immensely in the decades following, and with elk-sized appetites, they steadily began devastating the American wilderness of its vegetation, causing excessive damage to trees and shrubs, such as willows, that many other species rely on for habitat. 4
Besides being a habitat, another function the willows have in their ecosystem is slowing stream flow by absorbing the water with their roots. With fewer willows, streams flowed more quickly, and for the beavers who require the slow-moving water, this led to an exodus of their species as well. 5
And with beavers gone, the return of the willows became even less likely, as the ponds created by beaver dams where the willows thrived had now disappeared as well.
As a result, the depleted number of willows to sprout up were often consumed by elk before maturity and without a chance to spread roots and lock into the soil, the land in these areas loosens and erodes, lowering the available real estate for future plants to have a chance in further.
Think the land settlers imagined trees and shrubs and ponds and beavers would start disappearing if they got rid of the wolves?
Worse yet, a greater number of elk with less food to go around means more roaming and more running into other elk. More contact with more elk means more spread of disease, and less habitat means more wandering into private land. Increased contact with livestock has meant the spread of disease from the elk to cattle, 6 which we consume in great quantities and have built economies around.
And suddenly, the very reason humans tried eliminating the wolves, becomes the very result of eliminating them.
Still feeling eager to get rid of those mosquitos?
Well, if you are, that's okay, you still can be. Too many mosquitos is definitely not good for us.
But maybe a different way of thinking is required than terms of total annihilation. Maybe the right approach is balance. After all, if there are a lot of mosquitos, there's probably a lack of something else.
About 2 years ago, I spent two months renting an apartment in a small town in Colombia where I initially encountered two nuisances upon moving in. The building and paint were very old and had attracted a lot of cockroaches, and my room was open to a courtyard where plants outside my window received daily waterings, creating a perfect home for mosquitos to breed. (As much as I loved the fresh lettuce everyday.)
I am pretty good at finding my zen place when needed, but admittedly, the mosquito bites and cockroaches clicking and slithering out of the medicine cabinet and under the doorways had me a bit on edge. I was diligent with the bottom of my shoe and we tried some powders and sprays, but it was useless. I could curb their numbers at best.
Until, I thought about the wolves and had an idea.
Enter: Jack Spardo. A cat I had befriended on the farm of my friends Alex @ecoinstant and Ledis, joined me in my apartment as my new sidekick. With this little guy roaming the room at night, and having culled their numbers a bit myself, the big cockroaches stopped coming around.
As for the mosquitos and the little cucarachas (lest they grow into big ones), I transposed a spider from the garage into each corner of the room to spin a web to start collecting the free meals.
In no time, I stopped getting mosquito bites at night and no longer found cockroaches in the bathroom or heard them at night. By working together with members of my environment instead of fighting against them, we all found more harmony. And despite the cat, the spider, and I all representing the tops of our respective food chains, we avoided conflict with each other.
Perhaps like the wolf, lion, and bear do the same in the wild.
Without the spiders and the cat, I was overwhelmed by mosquitos and cockroaches. Just as Yellowstone was overwhelmed by elk without its wolves.
In 1995, Yellowstone decided it was time to begin healing the damage that 6+ decades without wolves and its cascading effects had done to the environment, and brought them back. 7
While the healing process is still taking place 2 decades later, and wolves are far from the only species that has lost its former numbers that need replenishing, the results are encouraging, and have meant good news for other all-but-extinct predators too.
The Eastern Cougar was officially declared extinct this year 8 and the Florida Panther, the only remaining subspecies in the east, may be close behind if efforts to reintroduce it to northern Florida fail. 9 Its role in its ecosystem being acknowledged may be its only chance.
Feral hogs are a dangerous and destructive growing presence in the American South 10 and, much like with the relationship between the wolves and elk, as one of the only animals strong enough to take one down, the one between the panther and the hog may be critical to stopping the invading wild pigs from further entering into communities and farmland.
Almost every supposed enemy we eliminate is only followed by a greater enemy in greater numbers. And every loss to follow is felt.
By bringing back predators into ecosystems where they have been lost, the delicate balance of nature can be restored in many ways. Humans befriended cats and dogs long ago for a reason. We are fools to let them die.
Predators kill prey. And big teeth and claws keep pests at bay.
But is there a limit to what we should introduce into an environment? At what point are we meddling?
What type of consequences can exist in the other direction?
(to be continued)