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Several readers have sent me articles in the last two weeks reporting that NASA scientists are finding that the Earth is trapping a lot less heat than global warming models have predicted we would retain, given our carbon dioxiode levels and current emissions. I don’t run around looking for stories to confirm a skepticism I might have about global warming. I truly think that we all ought to be more humble when it comes to modeling complex system. And that humility could be the possibility that we might actually destroy ourselves, but also the possibility that we will do very little damage or in fact improve things. So, rather than comment on the problems with global warming modeling, or the similarities between global warming modeling and econometric modeling of macroeconomic phenomenon, and rather than picking apart the science, I’ll just share another story that comes from Alston Chase’s excellent book, Playing God in Yellowstone (so much for pleasure reading while on vacation):

No one knew in fact what role predators had among Yellowstone fauna. In the park, wolves and mountain lions had disappeared before any studies had been done. And to sort out the relative effects of food and predation in controlling and influencing prey populations would have required ambitious studies of what biologists called three interacting “trophic levels”: vegetation, herbivores, and carnivores. Yet, James M. Peek, Professor of Wildlife Biology at the University of Idaho, told me recently that, “we have yet to see a good integrated study in North America where the three trophic levels have been adequately addressed. These are interlocking systems that must be studied together. (wintercow emphasis added, reminding readers that this issue is multiplied by a factor of more than 10 when it comes to climate issues)

Certainly in Yellowstone such a study was impossible. Without carnivores, a crucial element for understanding was missing. Their probably role in the park, therefore, had to be inferred from studies done elsewhere, in places, as we have seen, that were quite different. Yet such extrapolation, like metaphor, tended to be inexact. Truth about wildlife did not travel well. No two game ranges were alike, and none remained the same. Just as the philosopher Heraclitus had observed, “you cannot step twice into the same river,” so too we could never be sure whether one place told us the truth about another, or that our learning about he past told us what we needed to know about the present. What scientists called a “controlled experiment” could never be done in wildlife ecology. Just when we might think we had found the truth, the truth would change, flying away from us, as Plato would say, like a statue of Daedalus. Mother Nature would always remain one step ahead.

So wildlife biologists relied on models, the similes of science, and as with any analogy, the model chosen had much to do with the conclusions reached. “If you have no predators in Yellowstone,” explained Peek, “it is easy to minimize their influence; but if you go north where wolves are plentiful and see a lot of carnage on the calving grounds it is easy to overlook the habitat.”

In fact the majority of studies, elsewhere in North America, did suggest that Aldo Leopold had been correct: ungulates could destroy a range and predators could protect it.

Aldo Leopold is of course the famous conservationist who wrote the Sand County Almanac (recommended) and he also first believed that predators, like wolves and coyotes, were pests and should be eliminated.

5 Responses to “Yellowstone Ungulates and Global Warming Science”

  1. Rod says:

    One of the protected species in Yellowstone is the Bison, a mean and cantankerous critter that can run fast enough to reach you before you drop your camera and sprint to your car; if you are not killed by the bison, he can also do a lot of damage to your Prius.

    But bison are also a menace to other animals because they can and do carry brucellosis, a microorganism that infects deer, elk, cattle and people. Brucellosis, or Bang’s Disease is one of the few diseases that both animals and people can contract (in people it’s called “undulant fever,” and it causes symptoms not at all unlike Lyme Disease).

    Bison roam (of course the buffalo roam!) in and out of Yellowstone and through herds of beef cattle. When the beef cattle catch the disease, the whole herd has to be tested for it and reactors to the test must be quarantined immediately and then slaughtered and buried. I’m not sure what indemnity the government now pays ranchers for Bang’s-infected cattle, but it is only a few hundred bucks. Thus the disease can infect a rancher’s bank account with bankruptcy disease.

    So what should we do about the bison? Buffalo Bill is not around to eradicate them, and even if he were, the bison are pretty cute while not charging people. Given the hazard to tourists, the best thing would be to shoot them all and also shoot bison outside the park all the way to the Canadian border. And Canada should do its part to eradicate brucellosis, too. Back in the early 1980’s, brucellosis was eradicated in the United States, and some owners of cattle argued that it was a big mistake to risk using a live vaccine for fear of re-introducing the disease. (In cattle, the disease causes spontaneous abortion, so it’s even arguable that the disease could be eradicated through quarantining animals for just one generation.)

    The National Park Service has done a good job with the bears. 40 years ago, bears were everywhere people went. Now you seldom see any bears.

    Not such a good job with lake trout. The lake trout are crowding out the cutthroat trout, I hear.

    As for climate change and geology, at some point it’s entirely possible that Yellowstone will erupt into a giant volcano, taking with it the souvenirs at the Old Faithful Lodge. That should do a number on the greenhouse effect.

  2. Rod says:

    You can spend the same $500 billion twice if you’re talking about Medicare and Obamacare.

  3. Harry says:

    Today Al Gore flew off the epistlemological handle, no doubt an effect of Wintercow’s teaching efforts.

    Maybe wintercow can post Al’s seminar, with Speedmaster’s tech help.

  4. Rod says:

    “And what are you going to do with a degree in philosophy?” people used to ask. Finally, there is hope for employment as an epistemologist, or, better still, a logician. And English majors can have hope to find full-time work explaining how Al is dramatically ironic in his citation of male bovine manure.

    Actually, it is an epistemological matter, global climate change science. Just for starters, all of the historical temperature data is at its most accurate measured mostly in whole degrees. As we all know from our basic science courses, it is wrong to derive conclusions expressed in tenths of a degree. Al must have missed that at Harvard.

  5. Harry says:

    I hope Sherlock and others would offer their thoughts. Guys like Chuck, Wintercow, and others may intimidate young thinkers, but we hope to hear you. Even Speedmaster, with his boundless insight, will not be critical of any speculation, as long as he is in a good mood, and you do not make a slur about his technological competence.

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