Should we 'leave it to nature?'
May 15, 2019
A wise sage once said something like, "failure to learn from history will generally result in repeating the failures". This is what is happening in northeastern Montana. You have probably heard about the American Prairie Reserve's (APR) plans for an 'American Serengeti' that includes 10 or 20,000 wild, free-roaming bison on 3.5 million acres. Their stated intention is to remove all man-made improvements that have been constructed over the last 200 years (apparently, they consider their 'new' facilities like 'learning centers', yurt camps, camp sites, roads, trails, etc., do not qualify as being 'man-made') and turn the bison loose to roam freely and undisturbed.
There are two main philosophies on how to manage ecological processes. The first is to leave it to nature. Proponents of this approach advocate removing all human involvement and letting nature take its course. They believe the plants and animals will naturally reach equilibrium where all species will happily coexist. The other approach assumes humans are part of the environment and, like other animals (and plants), have an impact on many of the other components of the ecosystem. By studying these interactions humans are able to manipulate the components to change outcomes. This is the basis of the science of resource management.
The APR plans to introduce free roaming bison and top tier predators to 3.5 million acres in northeastern Montana and let nature produce an ecological utopia. Will it work? Fortunately, we have an example of where this has already been tried - Yellowstone National Park (YNP).
In 1968, YNP initiated a management policy that advocated no direct manipulation by humans. So what was the result of fifty years of this natural management? Dr. Jeff Mosley (Range Management Specialist, Montana State University) assembled a team of active and retired range, wildlife, botany, soils, history, etc., specialists to address that question. Their answer was published in The Society of Range Management's Rangelands journal (Vol. 40, issue 6, Dec. 2018) titled 'An Ecological Assessment of the Northern Yellowstone Range'. It is available at, https//www.sciencedirect.com/journal/rangelands/vol/40/issue/6. The seven papers in this issue are a must read for anyone interested in the results of 50 years of natural management regulation involving large ungulate populations (bison, elk, deer, moose, etc.) that are controlled by large predators (grizzly and black bears, wolves and mountain lions). The picture painted by these authors is not pretty and should be a wake-up call to all resource managers and to all those who care about our resources.
Basically, they found the uncontrolled bison population caused such extensive damage to the vegetation that, in some cases, it may not be recoverable. This, in turn, has had considerable negative consequences to associated wildlife species such as other ungulates, beaver, sage grouse, song birds, fish, etc.
If the APR were successful, their dream of an 'American Serengeti' would probably turn into a nightmare. Not only would the livestock industry and the human population suffer but, based on the results from YNP, the natural resources of this area would also be damaged beyond repair.