This past week, I picked up a book at the library called Where the Wild Things Were: Life, Death, and Ecological Wreckage in a Land of Vanishing Predators by William Stolzenburg (Bloomsbury, 2008).
I thought this book was going to be a tough read. But Stolzenburg tells a compelling story—I couldn’t put the book down. He writes about the devastating effects that the loss of top predators (both on land and in the sea) have had on the environment. Wolves and great cats, monstrous fish and flying raptors once ruled the peak of the food pyramid. But these so-called apex predators have now been reduced to minor players, all but exterminated by the human superpredator. This has had disastrous results.
One example familiar to most people is the explosion of the deer population. My family and I have always enjoyed seeing white-tail deer in the woods in New Jersey and New England. But living in the city, I had no idea the extent of problems caused by increasing deer populations. Deer no longer have any natural predators in most areas. They can eat their way through forests, creating understories barren of seedlings, eventually causing the forests to slowly die. This has reduced some forests to “botanical strip malls, monotonous repetitions of deer-proof weeds, sprawling in the wake of the [deer] herds.”
I had noticed this while hiking in the woods this past summer. It seemed as if ferns were everywhere, yet I didn’t see trilliums or other native flowering plants as I had in the past. I tucked that thought in the back of my mind, not really sure what it meant. Now I know why—deer don’t like to eat ferns. That’s why ferns were the only plants I was seeing. The deer had eaten almost everything else. I heard few birds too. Too many deer reduces the biodiversity of a forest. The implications of this are sobering.
As Stolzenburg writes:
In vanquishing our beasts from the modern world, we have released worse monsters from the compound. They come in disarmingly meek and insidious forms, in chewing plagues of hoofed beasts and sweeping hordes of rats and cats and second-order predators. They come in the form of denuded seascapes and barren forests, ruled by jellyfish and urchins, killer deer and sociopathic monkeys. They come as haunted demons of the human mind. In conquering the fearsome beasts, the conquerors had unwittingly orphaned themselves.
Stolzenburg offers a hopeful story about the success of returning wolves to Yellowstone, so the book isn’t entirely gloomy. He also praises the organization Defenders of Wildlife, which works with ranchers out West to find solutions that will work both for them and for the animals.
I highly recommend this book. It’s also fascinating for the descriptions of nasty politics and in-fighting in academia and among environmentalists, animal rights activists, and hunters.