National Parks Aren’t Pure

National parks are often billed as places of change and integrity (even by me), where nature can take its course. Yet, they face unprecedented challenges and are managed so that nature doesn’t take its course in many cases. Some parks cull wildlife through controlled hunts or periodic roundups (Wind Cave, Badlands). Biologists occasionally control one species to benefit an endangered animal (Cape Cod). Now, the National Park Service has developed a draft plan to prevent the extirpation of wolves from Isle Royale National Park in Michigan. Plans such as this, which suggest increasing levels of intervention in ecosystem management, are the future of conservation in national parks. This is a future, and a current reality, where humans have so fundamentally altered the planet that nature doesn’t exist outside our influence. Parks aren’t pure anymore.

In the early 20th century, national parks and monuments were managed primarily for aesthetics, spectacle, and recreation. Park superintendents and rangers had preconceived notions of what parklands should look like and the experiences they should provide visitors. Caves were manipulated and became showcases to march people through sensitive areas. Predators like wolves and mountain lions were vilified and persecuted. Bears were a sideshow. Feeding them at dumps and roadsides was often encouraged. Insecticides were sprayed to control native insect outbreaks. The long-standing philosophy was: parks ought to be pretty and tidy.

As respect for wilderness and ecological integrity grew, people began to reconsider how national parks were managed. In 1963, an advisory board for the Department of Interior issued Wildlife Management in the National Parks, or the Leopold Report after the board’s chair, A. Starker Leopold. Admittedly “conceptual,” the Leopold Report fundamentally altered natural resource management in parks.

The Leopold Report catalyzed a time of real soul searching for park managers. The report asked, “How far should the National Park Service go in utilizing the tools of management to maintain wildlife populations?” It acknowledged that few parks are large enough to be self-regulating ecosystems. It went further by stating the biological communities in parks are artifacts and that management is often essential to maintain some biotic communities. The report famously recommended the National Park Service manage parklands as “vignettes of primitive America,” a philosophical shift that on the surface represents a more pure vision of what national parks should and could be—places that resemble the prevailing conditions experienced by the first Europeans.

While noble, this ideal is wrought with fallacy. The Leopold Report admitted primitive America could never be recreated fully. Just to list a few examples: passenger pigeons are extinct, American chestnuts are functionally extinct, wild bison almost became extinct, and wolves were extirpated across most of their range in the United States. It also made no accommodation for Native American use and manipulation of the land. Essentially, any recreation of “primitive America” is artificial, but something to strive for.

What should we do when the line blurs between maintaining a primitive landscape and acknowledging there is no longer any such thing? Isle Royale National Park is one of the most recent parks to grapple with this issue. Isle Royale is the largest island in Lake Superior, sitting about twenty miles east of Grand Portage, Minnesota, and most of it is designated federal wilderness. The upper Great Lakes region was one of the few places in the Lower 48 states where wolves maintained a foothold throughout the 20th century, but Isle Royale was wolf-free in the early 1900s. Wolves only returned to the island in the late 1940s after crossing the ice on Lake Superior.

Only two wolves were observed on the island in 2016 (the historical average, according to the draft wolf introduction plan, is 20-30). The population plummeted because disease (canine parvovirus) and a lack of connectivity with the mainland reduced genetic diversity. The animals are now extremely inbred and remain in a genetic bottleneck they probably won’t escape. Even though Isle Royale has numerous moose (the wolves’ primary prey), the wolves will likely disappear from the island without human intervention. Is it wrong to let the wolves disappear?

Yellowstone National Park’s effort to reintroduce wolves is the most famous wolf reintroduction program in history. It is also a remarkable success, from the standpoint of the wolf. The reintroduction of wolves arguably shifted the ecosystem into top-down mode where large predators like wolves exert strong influence on the behavior and abundance prey species. Yellowstone’s effort corrected a wrong—people extirpated the park’s wolves through hunting, trapping, and poisoning. Now, a strong case can be made that humans are driving Isle Royale’s wolves to extirpation, just in a less obvious way.

At first, disease and a lack of connectivity with the mainland seem like natural influences, after all Isle Royale is an isle and many diseases infect wolves. Canine parvovirus is not native to the island, however. This disease caused the wolf population to decline drastically in 1981, from 50 to 14, and the population has never fully recovered. Wolves immigrate and emigrate from the island over ice bridges on Lake Superior. A warming climate trend has drastically reduced the frequency of the ice bridges, so much so that only one formed in the first decade of the 20th century. As the climate continues to warm, ice bridges will form less and less. For those reasons, you could easily make a case that humans precipitated the decline of wolves and therefore we should intervene.

The island would become a different place without wolves. Vegetation changes would become more pronounced and happen at a faster rate. Moose browsing threatens the persistence of big-tooth aspen, red oak, and balsam poplar on the island, but vegetation changes are not tied to moose alone. Computer models indicate many dominant tree species (balsam fir, white spruce, black spruce) may disappear from the island due to a warming climate. Paper birch and quaking aspen are expected to undergo serious declines. Park managers expect that in the presence of wolves, moose herbivory would be less likely to exacerbate climate change’s influences on vegetation. Looking at the issue from the perspective of ecosystem health and biological integrity, the presence of wolves is probably necessary to prevent habitat degradation, or at least slow it. Therefore, should we intervene? The NPS thinks so, and I don’t necessarily disagree.

There is no ecological difference between humans supplementing wolves on the island and wolves immigrating naturally across an ice bridge. The only difference is mental, cultural. We’d know we did it. We’d know we manipulated the ecosystem. We know we messed with primitive America. For some people, that trammels the island’s wilderness and severely impacts its natural quality.

We need to get over any of that if we want to maintain some biological integrity in the future.

In The End of Nature, Bill McKibben argues that by burning fossil fuels, we’ve fundamentally altered Earth’s atmosphere causing global warming, and nature, as it is classically known (the physical world outside of humanity and human creations), no longer exists. Now, not even the deepest ocean trenches are free of our fingerprints. There is no place untouched by humanity. Even if we did not alter climate, humans are so numerous and so thoroughly dominate most terrestrial ecosystems that McKibben’s hypothesis would still stand. We impact the evolution of life on Earth.

Recognizing that much has changed and much has been learned since 1960s, a National Park System Advisory Board revisited the Leopold Report in 2012 and recommended the NPS manage for constant change, instead of striving for a past ideal. Isle Royale’s plan could be supportive of the old and new philosophies. Wolves are valued members of a primitive America, but under current and projected future climate conditions, Isle Royale’s wolves may indefinitely need a helping human hand to remain viable. If we value wolves on the island, then we’re probably committed to supplementing population in perpetuity. Revisiting Leopold recommends the NPS expand their management strategies to encompass a geographic scope beyond park boundaries. If parks, in order to remain ecologically viable, need greater habitat connectivity to other wild lands, then they should forcefully advocate for that. We can no longer pretend national parks are vignettes of primitive America. Wilderness areas can no longer be considered “untrammeled” and “affected primarily by forces of nature” as stated in the 1964 Wilderness Act. We have to choose what parks represent and what they protect.

I’m not opposed to any of the alternatives proposed to introduce wolves to Isle Royale. It’s probably wrong to let wolves disappear from Isle Royale because climate change limits the chances of more wolves immigrating to the island naturally, but there are a lot of threats to biodiversity and we need to choose our battles wisely. We won’t be able to intervene in every Isle Royale-like scenario.

Are we any more intelligent or sophisticated than managers, rangers, and park visitors in the 1910s and 1920s when wolves were more vilified? They could’ve left animals alone to do their own thing. They didn’t, because they didn’t want to. Because, American culture said we should do otherwise. Now, we face a lot of the same questions. What do we value most in parks? How should we protect the things we value within them?

I like to believe, sometime in the future, humans will have voluntarily reduced our footprint enough so that most plants and animals can evolve without our influence. We’re not there yet, certainly not with 7.4 billion of us living in a market economy driven largely by greater and greater levels of consumption. So, yeah, we should help Isle Royale’s wolves, but let’s not pretend national parks are pure wildlands. There is no purity in national park ecosystems anymore. Perhaps there never was.

(The NPS is accepting comments on the Isle Royale National Park Draft Environmental Impact Statement to Address the Presence of Wolves through March 15, 2017.)

wolf standing in snowy forest

Photo courtesy of Isle Royale National Park.


11 thoughts on “National Parks Aren’t Pure

  1. Interesting and thought-provoking blog post. I’m particularly interested and fascinated by this subject and by your piece because I made the trek out to Isle Royale National Park last year in part to celebrate the NPS’ centennial. I’ve always been a moose-lover and have always wanted to go to Isle Royale as a kid. Last year, in such a monumental year for the NPS, I decided to make a go of it and planned a trip. Leading up to my visit, I read much about the ongoing studies of the declining wolf population at the park and the varying causes of the decline. I know there has been much public debate, with citizen opinion voiced, as to whether or not the NPS should step in to bring wolves back to the island or whether or not wolves should be allowed to just disappear “naturally” as they have. It’s been fascinating reading both sides of the argument.

    My initial reaction in all of this is that I would like to see the NPS follow through on their current plan to re-introduce the wolves to the island by bring them to the island. The re-introduction of wolves would put the moose population in check, and have effects on vegetative growth, and so on. In the past decade, as the wolf population has declined, the moose population has soared. When I visited during the summer, the Rangers stated that they believed there were more than 3,000 moose on the island, more than there has been in the past generation. The overgrowth of moose has had an effect on the overgrazing of the vegetation and ultimately effects the birds, the trees and other smaller creatures that call the island home. In the winter of 2015, a University of Michigan study over winter counted only 3 wolves, whom they believed to be an alpha male, an alpha female and their female offspring. By winter of 2016, that same study believed that the alpha female had passed away and only the male and his female offspring remained. The study went on to predict that they believed that by this past winter (current winter) the remaining 2 wolves would eventually pass away, leaving 0 wolves on the island come this spring/summer.

    Unfortunately, as I understand it, the current NPS proposal for the re-introduction of wolves won’t do anything to help the island’s current wolves. By the time the NPS received approval for their plan, it is expected that the current population will have passed and that the new wolves brought to to the island will be of a completely different family/pack line and will be expected to re-build their lives and their populations starting from scratch. While I would have preferred that there would have been some sort of solution that would have been able to help maintain and protect the bloodlines of the current wolf pack on the island, stepping in and doing something rather nothing, in my view point is still preferable. In my viewpoint, I prefer human intervention because I believe that one of the biggest problems where is that climate change has changed the winter landscape of Lake Superior and the surrounding area so much that the wolves can’t sustain themselves. As you touched upon, the lank of the natural ice bridge that forms each year between the island and the mainland prevents the wolf population from diversifying and re-populating and sustaining itself. For me, the fact that the ice bridge cannot be relied upon as it once was to continually form each winter is a direct result of human activity and climate changed caused by the human population, therefore human intervention is necessary to help stabilize and in a sense re-create the environment and ecology that has been maintained for naturally for hundreds of years previously.

    However, having said that, one of my biggest concerns with the NPS proposal is how they plan to sustain the population of wolves they re-introduce to the island. The current wolf population died out due to disease and inbreeding and could not be sustained. With the re-introduction of wolves, inbreeding will continue to be a major issue. So how does the NPS solve for that so that the new wolves don’t eventually die out the same way the current wolves have? Do they continually re-introduce more and more wolves to the island each year so that the new wolves bring in a new population and a new gene pool? I’ve heard that as a solution. But is it realistic and feasible to continue to do that? From what I know of the area and the environment, it’s obvious that hoping that ice bridges form to the mainland each year so that the population can diversify on its own just isn’t realistic, the climate just won’t sustain such an undertaking each year. I think that the NPS is always going to have many issues to deal with in the wildlife management of this particular unit, the constantly changing environment, as well as the public’s viewpoint and understanding of the challenges is continually evolving and changing. However, taking action now, and having a plan in place, is better than just letting “nature take it’s course” as there has already been too much human intervention in the natural course of things that nothing is really natural anymore. But yes, I agree with your assessment that while we’d all like to believe that the national park units are a place of purity, untouched and tarnished, that’s just not the case. Parks aren’t pure. But, that doesn’t mean that the NPS’ actions that have created parks that aren’t completely pure were wrong or unnecessary.

    If you have a chance to visit Isle Royale, it’s an amazing and wonderful place. My visit was all too brief, though for this city girl, I realized that a life out in the true wilderness that this island represents is a little too much for me. I was lucky enough to come across a moose family on my visit, a mother with 2 yearlings in tow. It was amazing and magical.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your thoughts. I’ve been to Isle Royale twice, although each trip was very brief (no more than two nights). I agree that the ideals of the past, such as those suggested in the 1963 Leopold Report, weren’t wrong. We just need to move beyond them, and quickly. Perhaps all national parks should identify the resources most vulnerable due to human impacts in then next 50 years, then develop a strategy to either combat the impacts and/or acknowledge situations when nothing could or should be done. For example, forest composition will not remain the same under a new climate regime. It’s probably not feasible or even appropriate to try and keep the same exact suite of tree species in a park, except in places like Sequoia or Redwood where the namesake trees are vital to the park’s significance. However, it would be appropriate to manage forests for ecosystem processes such as succession and nutrient cycling.

      Liked by 1 person

      • If there were ever an argument for the older generation paying attention to the thoughts of the younger generation, it lies right in what you are saying. You, and those who come after you, have a much greater stake in these issues than us old folks who won’t be around to enjoy what is done right or suffer from mistakes.

        We have pitched the value of national parks as “living laboratories” to the visiting public for years, particularly since the Leopold Report. Having gone to great lengths to minimize human impact on these areas, they are proving invaluable as “canaries in the coal mine” on global climate change. I think you are going a step beyond that and advocating for next generation thinking and doing in the face of the inexorable. Makes sense to me.

        I can’t help but wonder if we will demonstrate as much societal concern for small, less glamorous species, like the pika, as we do for the charismatic megafauna. If there was ever a good wildlife candidate (besides the polar bear) for a “global warming poster species”, it is the pika.

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      • Many biologists advocate more protection for biodiversity hotspots rather than focusing on charismatic species (this is a simplification of the argument, I realize). I see it both ways. One hundred hectares of rainforest is more valuable, from a biodiversity standpoint, than the typical temperate or arctic area and small critters deserve equal amounts of attention as larger species. However some animals, like grizzly bears, can be considered umbrella species, meaning if you protect habitat for them then you protect habitat for almost everything else in the ecosystem. I keep that thought in mind often since I’m reading North Cascades National Park’s Draft Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan.

        BTW, I had some great pika viewing experiences last summer in North Cascades.

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      • For some reason, I can’t respond to your response below, but this comment you made is one that I want to respond to:

        “Many biologists advocate more protection for biodiversity hotspots rather than focusing on charismatic species (this is a simplification of the argument, I realize). I see it both ways. One hundred hectares of rainforest is more valuable, from a biodiversity standpoint, than the typical temperate or arctic area and small critters deserve equal amounts of attention as larger species. However some animals, like grizzly bears, can be considered umbrella species, meaning if you protect habitat for them then you protect habitat for almost everything else in the ecosystem.”

        Isn’t this the one of the arguments in the longstanding debate about the resources and energy that has gone into/is being put into saving giant pandas? There’s much debate as to whether or not the efforts have been “worth it”. For some, the money that had been put into giant panda research and conservation has been “wasted” because the giant panda is an animal that can’t seem to save itself – reproductive issues, etc. Some biologists believe that it is too much of a focus on a specific animal that is to the detriment of saving other animals that could better benefit from the resources and energy that have gone into saving the giant panda. And yet, others argue that the efforts to save the giant panda have been worth it because they were recently moved from endangered to vulnerable, more is now known about their reproductive behavior and so therefore propagating panda babies has been easier and more successful and that if we can’t save the giant panda, the chosen symbol of the WWF, then how will we ever be able to save any other species?

        But many people forget that one of the biggest reason that giant panda populations dwindled is because of habitat loss and deforestation and clear cutting of bamboo forests in China. Not only do giant pandas need bamboo forests for food, but also to live and socialize and interact with other pandas. By cutting down bamboo forests, pandas lose their main source of food and nutrition, but they also need these lands to travel so that they can find mates and reproduce. Saving the bamboo forests saves the giant pandas. But much like the grizzly bear, this is the same habitat that is occupied by the takin and the red panda among other animals. So while there are those that argue that saving the giant panda isn’t worth it?
        They don’t understand that saving the panda means that resources and education have been devoted to saving their home, their environment which has also helped to save the takin especially. There’s always a snowball effect.

        And it isn’t just about the animals, it’s the plant species as well. Human intervention has had a devastation effect on many plant and animal species, some of which can be saved if we act now. Speaking of Hawaii, there’s the silversword plant that is only found on the higher elevations at Haleakala or there’s the nene which can be found at Volcanoes National Park amongst other locations.


      • The giant panda is probably the most commonly cited example in the debate to protect charismatic animals or focus on biodiversity hotspots. The ultimate goal isn’t to keep them in zoos only. It’s to sustain their populations in the wild, so yes habitat protections for pandas will benefit other species. The issue is a real Catch 22.


    • I liked your report of your visit, and your summation of the situation at Isle Royale. Your expressed concern about potential inbreeding and lack of genetic diversity going forward is well warranted. We see that repeatedly as we deal with endangered and threatened species, as well as sub-populations, like the wolves of Isle Royale. I am more optimistic today than I was decades ago, because we have such powerful genetic assessment tools available now. With hair snags and even newer methods of using feces for genomic analysis, we are better able to monitor the genetic health of a population, and assess the possible need for intervention.

      I want to provide a link to what I found to be a very well-produced video regarding grizzly bear reintroduction in the Cabinet-Yaak Mountains of Montana and the proposed reintroduction in the North Cascades of Washington. Even if you have already seen it, others may not have.

      The point I am trying to make is simply that we now have the diagnostic tools necessary to monitor genetic health in a wildlife species, particularly one that is on a real or functional “island”. The next step is to do the hard work of embracing the possible need for occasional human intervention, as Mike so eloquently speaks of. That entails setting aside certain philosophical “wishes” and being pragmatic. It also means educating the public and making the case with those who control the purse strings to support such efforts.


  2. This is a very thoughtful well-developed treatise on man’s influence on national parks (and other wild places), and the management philosophy conundrums that we have faced over the years, and will face going forward.

    One could make such a long laundry list of national parks facing the “manipulate or don’t manipulate” dilemma. I always enjoyed being exposed to NPS employees who had worked in other national parks, when I was volunteering at Rocky Mountain National Park, because they could speak to these issues firsthand. In Yellowstone, where former Park Superintendent spoke of employees “homesteading”, alluding to their tendency to stay put once they arrived, there was much less of that valuable diversity in park experience. I have vivid memories of a program presented by our Chief of Interpretation, who had spent years at Hawaii Volcanoes. Here is a link to a page on the park’s website for anyone curious about the specific issues out there:
    It is a short one page synopsis. I believe islands, like Isle Royale and Hawaii really showcase these issues due to their relative isolation. It seems like impacts tend to be more profound. Now, we have Darwin’s finches in the Galapagos Islands threatened by an introduced parasitic fly. Islands are dangerous places to hang out if you are a species teetering on the brink!

    One eventual management issue that some of my hiking buddies and I have ruminated on is what happens when the inevitable day happens that mankind develops a technological ability to accomplish the kind of flight that historically has only happened in people’s dreams. We saw jet packs appear about a half century ago, and even make an appearance in a James Bond movie. It has been often referred to as an “anti-gravity device”. We have speculated about the headaches that such technology will deliver to the resource protection mission in national parks. We have a few leading edge examples of unforeseen impacts via the evolution and popularity of geocaching and drones (AKA Unmanned Aerial Vehicles). One ignoramus already flew a drone into Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone in a widely publicized incident. With our insatiable thirst for bigger and better photos, we humans pose a significant threat to the resource. Ten years ago, we were just starting to hear about drones being used to conduct warfare. Now, you can’t walk through a shopping mall without coming across multiple opportunities to purchase your own drone for a few hundred dollars.

    The other side of the threat posed by certain emerging technologies is how it grows the visitor protection burden significantly. I recall that when the SPOT devices first appeared there was a flurry of unwarranted search and rescue activity. That may still be continuing today. Can you imagine what having visitors equipped with anti-gravity devices zooming around a national park might result in if there were no effective way of controlling the activity? Obviously, you have the opportunity for mid-air collisions, like we see in the existing aviation industry, but the specter of young thrill-seeking adventurers buzzing climbers on El Capitan or rafters on the Colorado River is a bit unsettling. How about when folks decide they want to get close to the latest eruption of Kilauea? Closer to home, can you imagine next generation drones or an anti-gravity capability at Brooks Falls?

    I’m old enough that I am not likely to be around when this type of challenge presents itself, but I still wonder about how we will deal with it. English poet, John Donne, penned the famous phrase “no man is an island”. Well, in this age, no national park is an island, and our parks are subject to ongoing buffeting by the inexorable march of technological innovation.

    Your tapping Bill McKibben’s book to illustrate your point on the impact of humanity on the planet is what sparked the thoughts I have voiced, so thank you again for your thought-provoking post. If this is a product of self-imposed isolation in a winter wonderland, I might have to try it.


    • Good thoughts, Frank. I’ve also been fortunate to visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park twice and loved it. The main Hawaiian Islands are poster children for human-caused ecological change. With so many endemic species to protect, that park faces extremely difficult challenges. That park might be one where managers could justify managing against change to protect its biodiversity.

      Yes, new technologies will change how we experience parks and park managers will be challenged to allow or prohibit them. I believe park managers should not attempt to dictate how people choose to experience parks as long as the activity isn’t unethical, unnecessarily harmful to park resources, or cause unacceptable user conflicts. Drones cause unacceptable harm to wildlife and other people’s experience and that’s why they are prohibited. Someone playing a video game on an iPhone while waiting for Old Faithful to erupt doesn’t, even though a lot of people find it ridiculous. We (i.e. everyone) will have to evaluate how new technology impacts parks. It’ll be no easy task.


  3. Pingback: To Change or Not To Change: A National Park Question | Wandering at Large

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