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Saving all the parts: The science of wilderness

By Peter Bradley

More and more, wilderness is becoming a laboratory, a crucible, where we can observe the intricate turning of the springs and gears of what Aldo Leopold called the “natural clock.” Large wilderness areas connected to other diverse wildlands can function as well-oiled, finely-tuned ecosystems, when all their parts are saved and in proper order and function.

Take Yellowstone for example. After Yellowstone lost the wolf—one of its top carnivores—in the 19th and 20th centuries, no one expected, and few even noticed the simultaneous disappearance of vast riparian woodlands—the willow, cottonwood, ash and mountain alder that grew along the creeks and rivers. But when land was protected as wild, and the gray wolf was reintroduced, all matter of ecological hell broke loose. Or, was it heaven? Reinserting the wolf gear into Yellowstone’s ecological clock provided an incentive for elk not to dally in the river bottoms after getting a drink, but rather to return quickly to the security of the deep woods. Willow and other trees and shrubs returned, which expanded the range and influence of beaver, which in turn expanded riparian areas, which provided habitat for river otters; yellow warblers, Wilson’s warblers, American redstarts and white-crowned sparrows once again had nesting canopy, and accipiter hawks returned to feed on the small birds, and so on. More wolves also meant fewer coyotes, which allowed foxes and weasels to return, which allowed grasses and forbs to recover, which led to improved breeding in elk and deer, which led to more wolves, which … shall I go on?

Nevada’s wildland clock ticks similarly, even if some of “the gears” are different. As elsewhere, our wild species need large complexes of wildlands, and migration corridors connecting these wildlands, to roam, hide, hunt and breed in. But in Nevada, we have the added challenge of sky-island habitats; many of our species live high in the mountains separated by dry valleys and alkali playas that might as well be mile-deep blue oceans. The isolation leaves high-elevation speciesvulnerable to inbreeding, genetic isolation and catastrophic collapse from fire, global warming and disease.

In fact, the Great Basin’s sky-island wilderness areas are known by scientists all over the world as some of the best places to study island biogeography; right up there with the Galapagos and Indonesian archipelagos (read David Quammen’s book, The Song of the Dodo, to learn more about this).

As elsewhere, the complexity of Nevada’s natural systems stretches far beyond the borders of our sky island wilderness areas, and each cog plays a role—from the soil enrichment activities of our gopher and ant species, to the seasonal migrations of our deer, elk, bighorn and pronghorn, to the beaver’s key role in preserving riparian corridors for myriad migrators (songbirds, waterfowl and bats) and year-round residents (otters, mink, muskrat, and western jumping mouse). The health and proper functioning of Nevada’s ecological systems are as dependant on the connections between wilderness areas as on the wilderness areas themselves.

Here we can learn a lesson from Yellowstone. If we are to preserve the beautifully intricate ticking of Nevada’s natural clock, we must all work together to preserve all cogs and wheels of Nevada’s ecological systems wherever they occur.


Pete Bradley works for the Nevada Department of Wildlife and serves on the board of Friends of Nevada Wilderness

© Pam White

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