To Change or Not To Change: A National Park Question

Last year, Isle Royale National Park released a draft plan to determine whether and how to stabilize the park’s wolf population. After evaluating the merits of several alternatives, weeding through public feedback, and with only two wolves remaining, the park has decided to introduce 20-30 wolves over a three-year period. In the park’s decision, managers have affirmed their belief that wolves on Isle Royale are an irreplaceable part of the ecosystem, and their loss is unacceptable.

Parks are being increasingly managed for change, but the myth of national parks as static vignettes of primitive America remains pervasive. As I wrote on this issue last year, parks are not pure. We live in an era of unprecedented change, and situations like Isle Royale’s will only become more common.

The National Park Service has made strides toward acknowledging that parks will change, but it’s time to put a greater effort into planning for it. To help the public better understand the dynamic nature of national parks and their significance—what we’re willing to save and what we’re willing to let go—there should be an effort across the NPS to identify at-risk resources and decide whether to protect them. Resources to protect would be species, habitats, and processes that if lost would impair the significance of the park or reduce biodiversity. This could help guide current and future management of parks, leading the NPS to implement preventative or prescriptive actions to stave off unacceptable impairment instead of waiting until it’s nearly too late.

In areas with endemic or endangered species—such as Hawaii Volcanoes, Haleakala, and Channel Islands—it may be most appropriate to manage against change to mitigate the risk of losing unique habitats or species to extinction.

In other areas where forest compositions will shift, it may be more appropriate to let change happen as long as native biodiversity is protected.

view of tundra and shrubs with mountains and lake in background

In Katmai National Park, shrubs and trees now grow at higher elevations compared to 100 years ago.

view of mountain scenery with craggy peaks and snowfields.

Should this view be protected or should tree be allowed to encroach on the scene? At North Cascades National Park, tree line is expected to rise in elevation which may threaten views like this one near Cascade Pass. Forests in this park, especially at low elevations, are also projected to burn more frequently under a warmer climate.

Importantly, this planning effort could help the public better understand decisions like Isle Royale’s, which seems inconsistent and arbitrary to many people who commented on the plan.

Biologists predict wolves will be extirpated from Isle Royale within a few years without direct intervention, but why intervene on the behalf of wolves at all? Wolves, as a species, don’t need Isle Royale to survive. As the NPS reasons, it’s less for them, and more for the park. Without wolves climate change would have a greater influence on the archipelago. Plant communities would shift dramatically under heavy browsing pressure from moose, causing a cascade of effects and perhaps, according the park’s Final Environmental Impact Statement, become less resilient.

“Under alternative A, increased [moose browsing] is probable and combined with climate change effects, it is likely that the rate of vegetation changes would be exacerbated and potentially accelerated. Additionally, it is expected that the resiliency of current wildlife populations to change would be reduced and contribute to more rapid population swings. Under alternative B [the preferred alternative] and C, it is expected that the project [sic] warming trends influences [sic] on the island would be less likely to be compounded by herbivory and its associated impacts.” (Pg. V)

Scenarios like Isle Royale’s will only become more common as we continue to fragment habitat, introduce invasive species, and change the climate. Not that I want it to be this way. Ideally park ecosystems would remain healthy enough and function normally enough so native species and biodiversity are protected without our heavy-handedness, but unless we shift our priorities dramatically then we’ll find ourselves stepping in at ever increasing rates.

We can no longer afford to think of parks as museums. What exists in them exists because we, directly or indirectly, choose it. In the face of unprecedented change, national parks cannot remain static. It wasn’t feasible in the past and it’s increasingly infeasible now. Where do we draw the line and how do we intervene? That’s something we need to decide right now—nationwide, collectively, and not in a piecemeal manner.

 

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.