“Land, then, is not merely soil; it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals. … The circuit is not closed; some energy is dissipated in decay, some is added by absorption from the air, some is stored in soils, peats, and long-lived forests; but it is a sustained circuit, like a slowly augmented revolving fund of life. … When a change occurs in one part of the circuit, many other parts must adjust themselves to it. Change does not necessarily obstruct or divert the flow of energy; evolution is a long series of self-induced changes, the net result of which has been to elaborate the flow mechanism and to lengthen the circuit. Evolutionary changes, though, are usually slow and local. Man’s invention of tools has enabled him to make changes of unprecedented violence, rapidity, and scope.” — Aldo Leopold
I find it interesting that when I write about wolf killings or other emotionally charged environmental issues, my readership increases significantly and then sustains itself for some time. My blog post about Bison, Cattle, and Wolves was no exception. What I find interesting is that the high emotions that seem to run when one writes about creatures like wolves, whales, or dolphins usually masquerades some very important underlying ecological issue. Human fear and emotion tends to win — leaving important ecological messages in the dust.
In this blog post, I want to examine the core ecological issue that lurks behind many of the emotional pleadings of both stewards of Nature and those who hate environmentalism. What is missing in all of the emotional stuff is the idea of energy flow and energy conservation in Nature.
In today’s society, we think of the word “energy ” as relating to the prudent use of electricity, the elimination of fossil fuels, the use of wind machines, or the like. Rarely does one think about energy at an ecological level. Yet, as I hope to convince you, energy flow and energy conservation within all ecosystems is probably the most vital of all the issues when we talk about preserving the Planet for future generations.
Energy is the operating currency for all of Nature. While we cannot touch it, we can feel it. Energy is not just some philosophical or spiritual concept. It is tangible, it is real, it is an essential and basic component in Nature’s equation. Energy is the force that drives all of Nature.
The Sun is our key source of energy. Our Sun’s light photons that arrive on Earth drive our basic and essential biochemical processes. Plant leaves receive these photons. A leaf’s chlorophyll takes in the Sun’s photons and, through a chemical process known as photosynthesis, transforms the solar energy into a form that is usable by a wide variety of plant eaters (herbivores) from microbes all the way up to grazers like elk and deer. Through their metabolic processes, these creatures chemically transform the stored plant energy into a form that is useful to them. Meat eaters, also called carnivores, then eat the plant eating creatures and transform the stored energy once more.
What we have is a highly interconnected system of energy transportation and transformation. We call this system an “ecosystem”. The reason we humans need to respect and protect ecosystems is because these systems contain vital energy transportation links and energy transformation processes. The basic reason that an ecosystem forms and exists is to facilitate energy flow between and among the members of that system.
So what does all of this have to do with wolves? Watch the “Lords of Nature” video. The scientists in this video do a great job of explaining and demonstrating what happened to the ecosystem at Yellowstone National Park when humans killed off the wolves. The evidence was very clear because they were able to observe what happened when the wolves were reintroduced over a half century later. When the wolves died, the elk and the deer populations exploded and ate off a lot of the plant life. In energy terms, the elk and the deer excessively consumed the plants that transported and transformed the photons from the sun into useful energy for plant eating animals. The excessive elk and the deer populations altered the flow of energy in the ecosystem.
The energy of stream beds at Yellowstone was also altered. The eating of stream side tree saplings by the excessive elk and deer population resulted in the erosion of stream banks and the altering of water flow. In turn, this affected the fish in the stream and the beaver. So, the killing of wolves by humanity resulted in the alteration of energy flow which caused stream bed alteration and its side effects just as if humanity had picked up a shovel and physically changed the stream flow.
When the wolves were reintroduced into Nature, a route of passive restoration was wisely chosen by the overseers of the program. Without the intervention of mankind, Nature restored its own original energy flow. Here is a great explanation of a wolf’s role in the ecosystem from Mission:Wolf .
“Since wild wolves have returned to Yellowstone, the elk and deer are stronger, the aspens and willows are healthier and the grasses taller. For example, when wolves chase elk during the hunt, the elk are forced to run faster and farther. As the elk run, their hooves aerate the soil, allowing more grasses to grow. Since the elk cannot remain stationary for too long, aspens and willows in one area are not heavily grazed, and therefore can fully recover between migrations. As with the rest of the country, coyote populations were nearly out of control in Yellowstone before the wolves returned. Now, the coyotes have been out-competed and essentially reduced by 80 percent in areas occupied by wolves. The coyotes that do remain are more skittish and wary. With fewer coyotes hunting small rodents, raptors like the eagle and osprey have more prey and are making a comeback. The endangered grizzly bears successfully steal wolf kills more often than not, thus having more food to feed their cubs. In essence, we have learned that by starting recovery at the top with predators like wolves, the whole system benefits. A wild wolf population actually makes for a stronger, healthier and more balanced ecosystem. From plant, to insect, to people… we all stand to benefit from wolves.”
“With only 5% of our nation’s wilderness left, people are recognizing the important roles complete ecosystems play in keeping all of us healthy. With new knowledge of the trophic cascade (Nature’s energy flow), we can now begin to focus wilderness recovery efforts on a wider variety of ecosystems. Using Yellowstone as an example, we can teach the world about the wolf’s positive and vital role in the wild.“
The lesson we can learn from this is that many of our actions as human beings can alter the energy flow in our ecosystems. We are deeply connected not just to each other but to all of life. Here are the important ideas:
- Nature is defined by her dynamic interrelationships between everything and anything in the Universe.
- Energy is the unifying force that defines these relationships. Energy is the operating currency which connects and drives all animate and inanimate objects in the Universe.
- Nature’s interconnections are the conduits for energy flow between and within Nature’s systems.
- Ecosystems are collections of Nature’s energy conduits. The organizing principles under which ecosystems are organized define our Earth.
- The job of the conservationist is to define and preserve Nature’s energy conduits.
Worth Your Extra Attention :
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My name is Bill Graham. As a Marine Biologist who has worked in the US and Mexico for 30 years, I am a student of Nature, a teacher, a researcher, and a nature photographer. Through my work, I have acquired an ever growing passion for how everything in Nature is connected. Today, I travel extensively contemplating about, writing about, and photographing Nature’s connections. I also work with conservation projects in the USA and Mexico and mentor talented youth.