Chapter 4: Assemblages, Ecosystems and Change

One of the topics addressed in Chapter 4 is Margaret Davis’ pollen work (pages 80-82 in the hardcopy edition). We people who study trees are familiar with the ideas of how different species came back from their refugia during glaciation, and how different assemblages of species have occurred through time. Many different groups of plants and animals have existed in different combinations on any particular piece of land through time. Changes can be due to changes in soil (e.g., Mt. St. Helens), changes in human activities (e.g., Appalachian “market-induced succession”) or invasive species (e.g., Chestnut blight) and changes are always going on (e.g., climate, development, etc.).

When I worked for the Forest Service, people would talk about how “ecosystems have evolved” and I would ask “what is the mechanism for an “ecosystem” to evolve?” If I had one critique with the ideas in Dan’s book, it is that he did not go far enough in talking about the Emperor’s missing clothes. Just reifying an “ecosystem” places natural phenomena within a human idea context and makes it possible to say all kinds of fuzzy things about an “ecosystem”. I think people use it as shorthand for more complex ideas, but the problem is that it lacks specificity and clarity.

I just ran across one this morning, that policies need to address “fire’s role in forest ecosystems.” My first question would be “fire’s role as to what aspect of plants, animals, water, soil and air?” Fire’s role, like climate or anything else, is not a constant. I like this quote from the book:
P 85. ..

we find that nature undisturbed is not constant in form, structure or proportion but change at every scale of time and space. The old idea of a static landscape, like a single musical chord sounded foresver, must be abandoned, for such a landscape never existed except in our imagination. Nature undisturbed by human influence seems more like a symphony whose harmonies arise from variation and change over many scales of time and space, changing with individual births and deaths, local disruptions and recoveries, larger-scale responses to climate from one glacial age to another, and to the slower alterations of soils and yet larger variations between glacial ages.

If you have been a reader and writer of Forest Service regulations lately, the “form, structure or proportion” will call back to your memory perhaps “ecosystem composition, structure and function”:

2012 Planning Rule: Alternative A would require plan components to provide for the maintenance or restoration of the structure, function, composition, and connectivity of healthy and resilient aquatic ecosystems and watersheds in the plan area.

2001 and Colorado Roadless Rule: Tree cutting, sale, or removal is needed to maintain or restore the characteristics of ecosystem composition, structure and processes.

These statements, in regulation, imply that certain characteristics should be “maintained or restored”; that is, maintained as they are today, or restored to what they used to be (yes, I realize that some in the FS is talking that “restoration” doesn’t mean that, it really means “resilience to change”, but English is English, and if you mean that you should put in in regulation, IMHO.)

Now, scientists reviewed all these regulations and did not say “hey, that doesn’t take into account current scientific thought, because there is no one unchanging way that composition structure and function is “supposed to be” and that “needs to be” maintained or restored.” I think in Dan’s book, he is again asking the question “if science tells us that everything is changing, why do scientists (including ecologists, I assume) review and accept regulations and other policies that seem to say the opposite?

I have three hypotheses. One is that the ecosystem idea has fuzzed everyone’s thinking. The second is that so much science is based on these ideas that scientists can’t imagine a world without them. Third is that scientists don’t study the “appeal to nature” idea in philosophy nor the history of its use (see Wikipedia here), so they don’t see that using it has conceptual problems way beyond the scientific community.

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Botkin on the Nekola Review

Here’s Botkin’s take on the Nekola review referred to by Guy here.

It is interesting that it arrived just a few days after I learned from the 2013 USA Best Book Awards that my book “has been honored as a ‘Finalist’ in the ‘Science: General’ category: The Moon in the Nautilus Shell: Discordant Harmonies Reconsidered by Daniel B. Botkin Oxford University Press, USA 978-0-199913916.” There were only five such finalists. (See

The important position of Nekola is revealed in the middle of the article with his statement that “Botkin spends almost two chapters talking about how essential disturbance, particularly fire, is to the maintenance of diversity in many USA grassland and conifer forest communities. However, he then chooses to ignore the accumulating empirical evidence documenting catastrophic biodiversity losses across many taxa groups following the reintroduction of fire into reserves (e.g., [8,9]). Such works suggest that the widespread improper use of fire management represent [sic] one of the single most harmful immediate threats to biodiversity within the USA today.”

What the writer ignores and apparently misunderstands is that the destructive fires he refers to occurred after fire suppression widely promoted by Smokey the Bear. Within the level of detail appropriate for this kind of trade book, Chapter 10, “Fire in the Forest: Managing Living Resources,” reviews examples of just this type of misunderstanding and discusses the work by Wally Covington and the proper role of light, frequent fires. Since the book was published, I have been working with experienced forester Bob Williams, recently named Conservationist of the Year by the New Jersey Audubon society, for his decades of work developing management plans for commercial foresters in the pine barrens. These plans make continued use of carefully designed prescribed burns, which not only made the forest owners money but improved biodiversity and other ecologically desirable qualities. So this paragraph by Nekola is the tip-off to where he is coming from — although he claims to have long accepted non-steady-state characteristics of ecological systems, he continues to repeat one of the old refrains, that disturbance is ultimately bad.

Nekola also writes, “The voluminous work done on neutral community assemblage, nonequilibrium disturbance, complex ecological systems, fracticality and other forms of nonlinear dynamics, and the role of stochasticism and entropy (e.g., [4–7]) is simply not discussed. Given these topics include some of the most active areas of ecological research over the past two decades, it is hard to justify why they were not reviewed.”

Given this focus on the importance of ecological scientific literature since the 1990s, it is odd that he does not mention my book’s lengthy discussions about stochastic processes, as in my own work with the JABOWA forest model and such things as the first quantitative estimation of the probability of extinction of any species. I am familiar with the literature Nekola discusses, but this was meant to be a trade book, not an academic review of all the relevant literature. Nekola reviews it as if it should be the latter. For example, he cites Gleick, J. (1987) Chaos: Making a New Science (Penguin Books). I discuss chaos theory in Chapter 8, The Forest in the Computer: New Metaphors for Nature and explain the faults with the idea and what it could really mean. But citing and discussing in detail a book like Gleick’s was inappropriate for the level of discussion, and the intended audience, and the length of the book (which already exceeded what Oxford University Press considered appropriate for a trade book).

Nekola also cites John Harte (2011), Maximum Entropy and Ecology: A Theory of Abundance, Distribution, and Energetics (Oxford University Press). I have known John Harte since he and I were on the faculty at Yale, and we used to meet for lunch and discuss ecology. I believe those discussions helped John move from physics into ecology. His book is a highly sophisticated discussion of the laws of thermodynamics and ecology, but not so much about non-steady-state in the way that was appropriate for my book and its audience.

It is also unfortunate that although Nekola cites other from the 1990s and later decades, he does not cite the original 1990 edition of my book, Discordant Harmonies, which was an influential factor in the shift to thinking about non-steady-state systems, and which he cites others from that and later decades. Instead, he cites a reprint, which I had never heard of before, and have to check with Oxford University Press to find out if any permission was given for this reproduction, or whether this is an illegal reprint. (He cites Botkin, D.B. (2001) Discordant Harmonies, A New Ecology for the Twenty-First Century. Replica Books.) Of course, the original was published by Oxford University Press in 1990, and had a significant effect on exactly the kind of thinking that Nekola says was common when he was a graduate student.

My primary concern about the books Nekola cites and much current ecological scientific literature is that they end up much more in the camp of a steady-state view of ecological systems than they argue for the kind of fundamental change that is my book’s thesis. The best analogy that comes to mind is the way climatological modelers on the one hand acknowledge, through the graphs they publish, the ever-changing characteristic of climate, but then go on to conclude—to make a moral warning of it— that we have “destabilized” Earth’s climate. You cannot destabilize a system that has never been stable, as I explain in the book. The range of literature that Nekola refers to tends to falls into this trap.

As another example, I just gave a keynote talk at an international Forest Biomass Conference sponsored by IUFRO, where I discussed current estimates of carbon sequestering used in both the basic scientific literature and in plans to develop carbon offset agreements. I and my coauthors show that the carbon sequestering estimates in use by IPCC and in the major scientific reviews are not statistically valid, have no estimates of statistical error and also assume that forests can store carbon at a fixed amount—i.e. in a steady state—taking us back to the balance of nature. Furthermore, these overestimate the realistic storage by as much as 2.7 times. (See for examples, Keith, H., B.G. Mackey, et al. 2009. Re-evaluation of forest biomass carbon stocks and lessons from the world’s most carbon-dense forests. PNAS 106(28):11635–11640, and Houghton, R.A., (2005). Aboveground forest biomass and the global carbon balance. Global Change Biology 11, 945-958.) This is an example of the way that the balance-of-nature idea keeps getting into the current scientific and applied literature, in indirect and therefore subtle ways.

Within the limits that are reasonable for a trade book, I did my best to present the value of looking at stochastic processes and other phenomena. If the book were intended to be an ecological monograph for researchers in the field only, I would have written it very differently, filled with academic details.

Reading this review, I am reminded of what Jonas Salk, the inventor of the polio vaccine, wrote and I quote in my book: When something is suggested, or some evidence is produced, the first response [of scientific colleagues] is “It can’t possibly be true.” And then, after a bit, the next response is, “Well, if it’s true, it’s not very important.” And then the third response is, “Well, we’ve known it all along.” The basic message of Nokela’s review is: Okay fellows, we can keep doing what we’ve been doing—despite our use of certain methodologies, we can continue to work using the old assumptions In Salk’s phrasing, “we’ve known it all along.”

So that the book can be completely dismissed, Nekola writes that “Botkin uncritically recounts a now 35-year-old paper that purports to show the importance of multiscale interactions, with planetary orbital factors influencing the construction of individual cephalopod shells. Unfortunately, immediately upon publication, this work was shown to be based on faulty assumptions and has now been widely discounted [11].”

Although my book was published in 2012, the writing of it was essentially done before 2010. (I actually had started with a different publishing house but then returned to Oxford, so the book took quite a while from writing to publication.) The citation Nekola refers to— Landman, N.H., and Cochran, J.K. (2010), Growth and longevity of Nautilus, in Nautilus: The Biology and Paleobiology of a Living Fossil (Saunders, W.B., and Landman, N.H., eds), pp. 401–420, Springer- Verlag— was therefore not available to me. The article I was aware of, relevant to this story was “Natural Rates of Growth and Longevity of Nautilus belauensis. W. Bruce Saunders, Paleobiology, Vol. 9, No. 3 (Summer, 1983), pp. 280-288. In that article the authors wrote, “The growth line counts of Kahn and Pompea (and their resulting claims regarding lunar orbital evolution) have been criticized by several authors (Hughes 1979; Jones and Thompson 1979; Saunders and Ward 1979): growth lines are difficult to count objectively, they may fluctuate in spacing and strength, and they are not known to be daily.” I had interpreted as critical, but not as dismissing the moon in the nautilus shell story. Not being an expert on marine invertebrates, I will now have to do a literature review of this book and its citations and see if it is consistent that the story should be completely dismissed. Science is a process, and science marches on. As I write in my textbook, Environmental Science: Earth as a Living Planet, chapter 2 on the scientific method, “Science is a process of discovery—a continuing process whose essence is change in ideas. The fact that scientific ideas change is frustrating.” Having put my heart and soul into this book, I hope that the strengths of the book elsewhere will compensate for the fact that science is a process and that what appears to be correct in one time may later be shown to no longer be the case.

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Exploring Botkin’s Book: Bring Your Stories and Your Right Brain

This is not the Chapter 4 post I promised but will post this weekend, with Chapter 5 right behind it.

Rather, it is a bit of a reflection on the discussion that Guy started here, which started me back to talk about what I thought we might do with book club. What Botkin sees as some kind of philosophical disconnect is, perhaps, a journey of discovery (to echo one of his other books) into the right brain, into the complexities of our thinking and feeling. So when I read this book, I saw the repetition as leading to rumination and calling forth from us something deeper and intuitive, which we could learn through right-brained activities like story-telling and personal experiences. Botkin shies away from theology; but I am a theology student and John a theology graduate. So, indeed, we, here in Book Club, are positioned to go deeper.

So when people say things like “it’s too repetitive”, I think that you could say the same thing about many books. That’s not the question, in my mind, ..I’m interested in what the book calls forth from you. If you don’t want to read it because it’s too repetitive, that’s fine. The book struck me as something for sitting down and meditating, a kind of non-spiritual Lectio Divina.
But, of course, I never really explained that, and it was only when I read the discussion that started with Guy’s post did I realize that I had never made those points very clearly.

Another critique that came up is “Botkin is too self-confident” or something along those lines. Indeed, we could argue his personal virtues or lack of them all day. But that’s what’s called an Ad hominem argument (see this Wikipedia entry).

Now I don’t expect any of us to necessarily know that. I went into forestry (probably like many of us) to provide for my family, and philosophy (and learning how to construct arguments) was not required. Indeed, when I taught Environmental Ethics, I found that the natural resources mind seems generally more aligned to practicality than to philosophy.

I should point out that Botkin was on the USDA Advisory Committee for Agricultural Biotechnology and made many valuable contributions (my only successful effort at getting someone on a FACA committee). And who among us is not irritating in some way? I’m not casting any stones.

As Bob Zybach said in the comments, the point that Botkin was making was not that ecologists don’t know about dynamics. The point Botkin was making was that some of them don’t behave as if they do, especially when it comes to public policy.

In Botkin’s own words, page xii, of the Introduction, he says

“If you ask ecologists whether nature is constant, they will always say “of course not”. But if you ask them to write down a policy for biological conservation or environmental management, they will almost always write down a steady-state solution.”

I don’t think the review Guy mentions here addresses that. In fact, the author seems to blame “applied” ecologists and natural resource managers for not keeping up with the “pure” ecologists. I get the feeling he doesn’t understand what Botkin is really saying, nor the problem he identifies in the paragraph above. But that’s fine because it won’t be hard for us to find examples. Then we can observe them and determine what kinds of scientists are doing this; they might be “applied” ecologists or not ecologists at all. But I learned something I had never heard before from this review…

Second, Botkin spends almost two chapters talking about how essential disturbance, particularly fire, is to the maintenance of diversity in many USA grassland and conifer forest communities. However, he then chooses to ignore the accumulating empirical evidence documenting catastrophic biodiversity losses across many taxa groups following the reintroduction of fire into reserves (e.g., [8,9]).
Such works suggest that the widespread improper use of fire management represent one of the single most harmful immediate threats to biodiversity within the USA today.

But that’s probably a topic for the NCFP blog. I was pretty surprised when I read the author’s biosketch here, because it seems like his research tends to be about real critters and their diversity, and not necessarily theoretical models. So not that different from applied people, nor from people who are in Book Club. More fodder for rumination.

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Virtual Book Club: Back From Elk Season

All, thank you for your ongoing comments and discussion while I’ve been off. Due to other commitments I did not get “back” as early as I originally intended and won’t have time to get into posting more thoughts until my last paper is done on Nov. 11.

I do like the gentler and more reflective pace of this discussion group compared to the NCFP blog. I like that it allows us time to find related papers, books and articles to bring into the discussion. Nevertheless, I do feel a need to complete a plan, so we will be done with the book before February when the work for my next class will heat up.

So here is a schedule that I plan to adhere to to get through the book.

Nov. 11 Chapter 4 Oaks in New Jersey
Nov. 18 5. Mountain Lions and Mule Deer
Nov. 25 6. Earth as a Fellow Creature
Dec. 2 7. In Mill Hollow
Dec. 9 8. The Forest in the Computer
Dec. 16 9. Within the Moose’s Stomach
Dec. 23 10. Fire in the Forest
Dec. 30 11. Salmon in Wild Rivers and Grizzlies in Yellowstone
Jan. 6 12. The Winds of Mauna Loa
Jan. 13 13. Life on a Climate-Changing Planet
Jan. 20 14. The Moon in the Nautilus Shell
Jan. 27 15. Postscript: A Guide to Action

If you want to go ahead and author a post for any of these weeks, please send to me and I will hang onto it. Otherwise, I will post something to discuss each week.

Some of the ideas that, for example, Guy brought up are broader than any individual chapter and those are fine to send to me to post and discuss anytime. I just want to have a plan so everyone can see where we’re going and when we might get there.

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One critique of Botkin’s Book

By Guy Knudsen

Probably posting this in the wrong place, but the only place where I could figure out how to post it. I did buy Dan Botkin’s book (Moon in nautilus etc), got the kindle version which was cheapest, and am still deciding whether it was a good purchase or not. Anything that makes me think has some value, I guess. My three main problems with the book are 1) Very wordy, he goes on endlessly elaborating on isolated examples (wolves on the island as one instance), they are anecdotally interesting but his use of them to derive grander principles seems contrived. “Cherry-picking” is the term that comes to mind; 2) He repeatedly states the obvious and well-known (e.g., change rather than permanent steady-state is the ecological norm), sets up straw men to compare himself with (e.g., the idea that most ecology is based on, and ecologists believe, that nature is a steady state phenomenon, which is patently false, similarly his trivial and inaccurate exposition of the logistic equation in population biology, which he then proceeds to knock down), thereby proclaiming himself a “renegade naturalist”; 3) endless self-promotion (I guess that’s really just a variation on #2). When I read him, I’m reminded of Walter Mondale’s comment on Gary Hart’s self-proclaimed “big ideas”: Where’s the beef? One example that’s about as vegan as an idea can get, not in his book but on his website (modestly titled “Daniel B. Botkin: Solving Environmental Problems by Understanding How Nature Works”), where he provides “The Rules of Ecology” (so far there’s only one), which includes statement such as “The evolutionary goal is simply to stay around.” If you think just a little bit about that statement, you hopefully realize either that it’s flat-out wrong, or else he’s using the term “goal” metaphorically, much as Dawkins did when he talked about “genes maximizing their representation in the gene pool.” Again, this is metaphor, which is not explanation, and it would be helpful if Botkin would explain and acknowledge that, rather than throwing it out as part of “Botkin Rule of Ecology #1”.

Wondering if maybe I was alone in my discomfort with this book, I did locate one review (coincidentally in one of my favorite journals, Trends in Ecology and Evolution) which takes on Botkin’s book, both the good and bad aspects, much more eloquently than I could:



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Chapter 4- Break for Western Annual Sacred Rite

elk image

We all celebrate the holiest of times in the Interior West- Elk Season- at different times. In honor of second season Colorado, we will take off until October 28th.

At that time we will take up Chapter 4, which is really about changes in forests and forest species through time, as well as changes in climate. So if you have particular thoughts, yard them up and be ready to go on the 28th. If you are not hunting or going to the SAF Convention, and would like to summarize your thoughts on the chapter as a post, you are welcome to do so! Send to me.

My old boss, Rick Cables, used to refer to this time away as his “spiritual retreat.” Hoping that you and your freezers are both refreshed when we return.

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Botkin Chapter 2: Nature is Good; People Are Bad

Bob did an excellent job of summarizing Chapter 2 here. However, instead of answering his questions, I would like to explore another idea that arises (albeit peripherally, perhaps) in Chapter 2. (This is OK in Virtual Book Club; you, too, can post a topic, just send your post to me or Bob). This book is chock-full of post-worthy quotes, paragraphs, and digressions; which is why it makes such a good Book Club book.

I was intrigued by this quote from Daphne Sheldrake in the Tsavo Story (on page 28 of the print edition).

“hasn’t man always had a regrettable tendency to manipulate the natural order of things to suit himself?”
“With amazing arrogance we presume omniscience and an understanding of the complexities of Nature, and with amazing impertinence we believe that we can better it.. We have forgotten that we, ourselves are just a part of nature, an animal which seems to have taken the wrong turning, bent on total destruction.”

There are a couple of ideas in this quote.. first there is the breast-beating misanthropic tone..and the use of “we”.. as I said in this essay..entitled “Breast Beating of Others is Neither Attractive Nor Particularly Useful.”

You mean people have hunted, fished, grown crops and livestock to feed and clothe themselves? So whassup with the negative tone of “manipulate the “natural order” of things to “suit himself”? Would the world be a better place if we all killed ourselves? There is something behind this that deserves deeper exploration. We hear the same language today, even, sometimes, on the NCFP blog.

The idea of bad humans using resources seems to be a fairly recent idea (Botkin mentions Marsh in the late 1800’s, which makes sense because there were notable negative impacts from people’s uses). “People can have a variety of impacts on the land and its creatures, and we should be careful not to have severe negative effects on the environment” (my framing) is different than “we are an animal bent on total destruction.”

Where does this “nature is best” philosophy lead us? To all killing ourselves for the good of Nature? Just to feel bad that we exist? Does this go back to deeper philosophical questions about the Nature of Humankind, fundamentally good or bad, that have traditionally been addressed by religions (on both sides of the argument)? Has the rise of this belief come about since the “death of religion” due to a fundamental need some humans have to feel bad about themselves (brain chemistry) or to tell other people they are bad (bossiness), normally expressed through preaching fire and brimstone, but in the post-religion era needing some other framework for expression?

Those of us who are involved in religions may feel that this drill is very familiar. “We” have sinned by existing and using resources. By appropriate self-mortification, like riding your bike to work, as determined by the Environmental Curia, you may atone for your sins.

One more thing I’d like to address.. how the word “nature” is used to determine “what should be” is as old as the hills, and has been used in a variety of contexts, including “human nature”. “Nature” tends to be an argument used when more rational arguments for what you want to do fail to convince others that you are right. Is this the case today?

And first, where I affirm the empire of a woman to be a thing repugnant to nature, I mean not only that God, by the order of his creation, has spoiled [deprived] woman of authority and dominion, but also that man has seen, proved, and pronounced just causes why it should be.

The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women 1558 John Knox

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Botkin Chapter 3: The Wolves and Moose of Isle Royale

Sharon is busy with schoolwork this week and has asked me to pinch-hit on the virtual pub book discussion blog.  If this is your first visit to this blog, the best place to start — and to introduce yourself — is:

Rather than provide a summary of Chapter 3, as I did with Chapter 2, I am reprinting a recent post by Dr. Ralph Maughan, an expert on wolves and a strong proponent of their reintroduction in former habitats: The reason for doing this is that Maughan is commenting on the very focus of Botkin’s 3rd chapter, which starts with the story of his (Botkin’s) experiences researching the predator/prey relationships between moose and wolves on Isle Royale, an island in Lake Superior near the Canadian border that is over 200 square miles in size and contains 45 lakes of its own. What has made the island particularly interesting for this type of study is that it has never been heavily influenced by people; moose first arrived there from the mainland only about 100 years ago; and wolves didn’t arrive (except for a failed National Park Service attempt to establish them with zoo animals in the late 1940s) until the lake froze over more than 50 years later — after the moose had a half-century to build their population without a major predator to inhibit their reproduction.

As with Chapter 2, Botkin uses this story and others — sandhill cranes, Canadian lynx and microbes — to examine the “balance of nature” as it has been defined mathematically and as actually observed, to examine the differences between the two. Both writers cite the work of long-time Isle Royale researcher and wildlife ecologist, Rolf Peterson, but they seem to come to different conclusions as to why that work is important:

I would like to thank Dr. Maughan for permitting me to repost his work here. Of the 72 comments on this topic on his blog, a significant number were my own in sometimes heated response to many of his regular commenters. Tree and Matthew will understand. It was my second visit there, and both times I seemed to stir up the natives with my thoughts and opinions — mostly because of the old “anonymous commenter” discussion. I think JZ first sent me there and after I went and got a similar reaction, he said he was just joking. Maybe it was Derek, but you will see the result if you read the comments, too.

I will leave it up to actual readers to determine their own thoughts on these two perspectives, but I’ll repeat Botkin’s analogy of “resilient stability” in regards to the “balance on nature” argument by his comparison of a person with a drink building a house of cards on a train: the house of cards will collapse with a bump or large vibration, but the drink will only slosh around before it returns to its former level. One is a fragile balancing act, and one is resilient. For me at least, that provides a clear metaphor for this discussion. Now for Maughan’s post:

Should the declining inbred wolves of Isle Royale N.P. be augmented?

Should there be genetic rescue (outside wolves brought in)-

For many years the wolves and moose of Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior have shown that wolves do not wipe out their prey. When wolves become abundant enough that the disappearance of prey seems probable, the wolves die back.

On the other hand, when wolves have declined to few in number, the moose population expands and begins to decimate its prey — the moose-edible vegetation of the island.

This rough balance has existed ever since wolves colonized the island one hard winter. In 1949 a pair of wolves walked over to the island on the frozen lake. The pair found an island overrun with moose. The moose themselves had migrated to the island 40 years earlier.

The wolf population expanded, of course, and brought the moose number in check (and more). Then the wolves began to starve off and the cycle began.

The moose prefer aspen, and they do well eating it. However, they mostly wiped that out before the wolves came.  Ever since, they have relied primarily on the less nutritious balsam fir and lichens.

Both the moose and the wolves are also subject to inbreeding. It is especially a problem for the wolves, all of which descended from the original pair. So, in addition to the cyclic malnutrition when the moose population drops too low, the wolves have been seen to suffer from increasing genetic defects. One of these is poor reproduction even when there is enough food.

Down to just 8 wolves, they seem doomed without outside genes from new wolves. There have been up to 50 wolves at a time on the island, although many scientists think a stable number is about 25. It should be noted that there have always been wide fluctuations around this “mean.” The eight wolves seem to have gained a brief reprieve with the birth of 2 or 3 pups in 2013 after several years with none. Nevertheless, it is hard to see how the unaugmented population can survive much longer. It is less and less likely that the lake will freeze and wolves from Minnesota, Michigan or Wisconsin find their way to the island.

The wolves and their relationship to the moose and the vegetation have been studied since 1958. Dr. Rolf Peterson, in particular, is the person most closely associated with the studies. He would like to see some genetic rescue. Dr. Dave Mech, however, who is another avid student of the island’s wolves is reported to want to first let natural events play out.

With the wolf population so low, we would now expect the moose population to be expanding. It is. However, it is increasingly suffering from tick infestation. This is a problem for moose in general during winters, but Isle Royale has seen warmer winters as the climate changes. This makes the effects of the bloodsucking  arachnids more severe.

Rolf Peterson recently sent out the following letter.

The National Park Service is interested to receive your input on the pending decision regarding the future management of wolves on Isle Royale.  Please send your input to the following email address: (note the “underscore” between ISRO and Wildlife)

The Park Service is considering three options:  (1) do nothing, even if wolves go extinct; (2) allow wolves to go extinct (if that is what they do), and then introduce a new wolf population; or (3) conserve Isle Royale wolves with an action known as genetic rescue by bringing some wolves to the island to mitigate inbreeding.

While expressing your view, consider providing as much detail on the reasons for your preference, as the Park Service believes the reasons for your view are as important as your view.  If you have any questions on the process or anything relating to providing input, please do not hesitate to ask me.

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Botkin Chapter 2: Why the Elephants Died

Sharon is busy with schoolwork this week and has asked me to pinch-hit on the virtual pub book discussion blog (my choices are Kat Anderson or Hugh Raup for book #2). If this is your first visit here, the best place to start — and to introduce yourself — is:

The focus of this chapter is the disparity between computerized model predictions of wildlife populations over time, their actual populations, and why these numbers are usually so different from one another. This is an important distinction because most of our fish and game management objectives are based on the former, inaccurate, “balance of nature” computerized numbers, as are many of our Endangered Species population estimates. Botkin also provides a brief parallel history of ecology as a science, which concludes with one of my favorite quotes in the whole book:

“Many believe that ecology is still a “young” science, but in comparison to most modern sciences, it is not young but simply retarded.”

This chapter examines the truth to that statement by comparing elephants in Africa, anchovies in Peru, salmon in the Pacific Northwest (where I had the pleasure of working under Botkin and participating in the first of his studies of that animal), and whales in the ocean, with fruit flies in a jar. Botkin’s examples and thoughts are clearly presented and described in well written English, with little use of Latin, metrics, or acronyms; i.e., “Plain English.” As a result, almost anyone with a basic education and good reasoning skills can follow his logic, arguments and conclusions.

The chapter opens with the story of one of the world’s first protected wildlife populations, the elephants of Tsavo; a large 5,000-square mile national park in Kenya, Africa dedicated to the survival of African big game animals. The park was created in 1948, 65 years ago, largely through the efforts of a single man, David Sheldrick, for the protection of declining African elephant and rhinoceros populations from their principal predators: human ivory and meat hunters. The primary purpose for protecting these animals was to attract tourists to the park in order to view them. Within 10 years the elephant herd had increased to 36,000 animals and the landscape had become largely denuded of vegetation. By the mid-1960s it was decided that 3,000 of the animals needed to be shot, in order to preserve the habitat. This idea was overturned and the decision was made to “let nature take her course” and allow the elephants and vegetation to achieve a “naturally balanced” “carrying capacity.” A prolonged drought in 1969-1970 contributed to the destruction of most of the remaining vegetation and an estimated 6,000 elephants starved to death.

Botkin uses this story to illustrate the difference between a theoretical balance of nature, and a balance created by people; i.e., roughly the difference between shooting 3,000 elephants and letting 6,000 elephants starve to death. A third alternative is also considered – that Tsavo was simply too small to contain that many animals and that they needed to migrate from one area to another during times of drought or other stressors. Following Sheldrick’s death in 1977, poachers again entered the preserve and by the 1980s the herd had been reduced to 6,000 animals. Today it stands at about 12,000 – far less than the 36,000 that had once lived there under Sheldrick’s management practices.

The elephants of Tsavo are used as a beginning point to examine other human attempts to manage the environment to achieve a desired number of animals. The wildly fluctuating populations of Peruvian anchovies, Pacific sardines, Atlantic menhadens, and several other commercial fisheries are provided as examples where harvest levels were established in attempts to stabilize populations, and failed; typically resulting in abrupt declines in the targeted species. These failed attempts at controlling natural populations of desired fisheries were based on scientific models. This is an important consideration because much of the world’s food supply – particularly in poorer countries – is provided by fish.

This is the principal theme of Chapter 2: the consistent failure of scientific predictive models to accurately estimate wild animal populations, and the reason that Botkin concludes ecology is “retarded” when compared to other modern sciences. He begins in 1838 with Pierre-Francois Verhulst’s simulation of natural populations with the invention of the S-shaped logistic growth curve, which results in a conceptual “carrying capacity” for the environment. Laboratory experiments in the 20th century replicated this model with certain insects and with bacteria, thereby seeming to prove its utility for wild fish and elephants. Alfred Lotka, an early mathematical ecologist, used fruit flies, bananas, and aquariums to fine-tune this equation, and was able to maintain stable populations of these animals in controlled environments. This artificially regulated number of insects was termed a “density-dependent” population, Lotka’s equation was named the “logistic” model, and Botkin cites a paper written in 2010 that examines this potential phenomenon in regards to wild elephants.

As Botkin next explains that, although the logistic equation is considered an “ecological formula,” its mechanical basis can be compared to “a collection of identical colliding balls” with “a certain rate of destruction” and “capable of identical rates of division.” In using this equation to consider a herd of elephants there is no differentiation between bulls, calves, or breeding cows, for example, just a total number, as with the box of identical balls. This idealized balance of population numbers cannot (“has never been observed to”) occur in nature, of course, and Botkin describes the logistic equation as “something from [Lotka’s] imagination, not from actual observation” – as occurred with the world fisheries or the Tsavo elephants.

Following the widespread adoption of Lotka’s work in the field of ecology, Botkin goes on to describe how it has evolved into a simple calculation that is exactly ½ as large as predicted carrying capacity: the “maximum-sustained-yield” population. To complicate the picture further is the fact that it is impossible to accurately measure many wild populations in the first place – Botkin uses Arctic crabs and the television show Deadliest Catch as his example, and comes to the conclusion that the maximum-sustained-yield concept is “fundamentally flawed.”

The Marine Mammal Act of 1972 tried to overcome this broken model with a new concept: “the optimum sustainable population,” and Botkin was hired to help develop this idea. His approach was overturned, however, and a panel of University of Washington scientists recommended a return to the failed logistic model and reinstituted the ideas of “maximum productivity” and “carrying capacity.” This led to Botkin’s conclusion that the scientists had reverted to a belief in the disproved myth of the “balance of nature,” and subsequently led to his book Discordant Harmonies, and ultimately to this present work:

“Thus even today, in both law and in practice, the scientific conservation of endangered marine species continues to be based on the idea that nature undisturbed is constant and stable . . .”

In other words, the management of endangered whales is based on computerized mathematical formulas developed with fruit flies in an aquarium, and not on actual observations by people:

“An irony is that it seems that everybody talks about how complex nature is . . . but we are content to formalize nature in about as simple and simplistic a way as possible.”

2 Questions:

Botkin argues that it is important that people – and particularly scientists – must accept the contradictions between fact (“observations”) and theory (“computer models”). Agree or disagree?

He further argues that this acceptance will lead to a “deeper level of thought” and allow us to find a “true harmony of nature.” Does that even sound plausible or necessary?

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Botkin Chapter 1: The View from the Marsh

Since Botkin did a great job in the introduction of summarizing the whole book, I thought we could go chapter by chapter through the book, and end up with the introduction to see if we missed anything.

So here are some tickler questions:

1) Is there something you strongly agree/disagree with?

2) Is there something that surprised you?

3) Does one of Dan’s stories remind you of a story of your own?

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