Managing For Deer, Moose, Elk, Wolves -- And People

February 24, 1999

The latest edition of Ecological Applications Examines Management Practices in the U.S. National Park Service

The National Park Service incorporates some of the most impressive and important natural systems in the United States of America. Filled with awe-inspiring views, unique natural wonders, and multitudes of native flora and fauna, the parks many seem to many like museums of nature. And to the general public, the NPS staff may seem like a team of curators, charged with preserving a view of what our country looked like before the arrival of Europeans.

But the true role of the NPS is much more complicated and much less static. In the eighty three years since the U.S. Congress established the National Park system, the land management practices of the parks have evolved and changed to meet both public approval and logistic feasibility. In addition, the study of ecological systems in and around the parks have revealed new insights into what may or may not be ecologically appropriate decisions regarding park management.

The February edition of Ecological Applications presents a special feature on wildlife management in the US National Park system. Included are three case studies which were presented during a workshop at the Ecological Society of America's 1996 Annual Meeting.

Of Elephants and Blind Men: Deer Management in the U.S. National Parks by William Porter of the State University of New York at Syracuse and Brian Underwood of the Biological Resources Division, United States Geological Survey, examines the controversial issue of white-tailed deer population surges in eastern National Parks. "Like blind men touching different parts of an elephant and disagreeing about its form," the authors write, "those engaged in the debate about deer management in parks are viewing different parts of the ecological system. None has seen the entire system, and consequently there is neither common agreement on the nature of the problem nor on the solutions." Deer management policies, based largely on the NPS' experiences in the West, do not work well in the East. The issue is further complicated by the fact that the NPS seeks a population abundance of deer that is determined by natural interactions with plants and predators, while state agencies seek a point defined mostly by what farmers and foresters will tolerate. And the public is embracing the idea of natural balance, an outdated scientific concept. Thus, the policy of allowing ecosystem components to vary is often criticized by a public that perceives a lack of constancy in the landscape as reflective of poor management. The authors conclude that the best hope for resolving is through the use of adaptive management, where policies and strategies are regularly re-evaluated in light of new understanding.

Wolf-Moose Interaction on the Isle Royale: The End of Natural Regulation? Found about forty kilometers (about 25 miles) off the shores of Lake Superior, this island's ecosystem provides a real-world microcosm, which Rolf Peterson from Michigan Technological University explores as a test case for some of NPS' wildlife management policies. Peterson examines the effectiveness of natural regulation, the prominent and controversial approach in which wildlife populations are allowed to fluctuate without direct human intervention. The policy, which was adopted in Yellowstone in the late 1960s, assumes that populations of deer and elk exhibit density dependence which, even in the absence of large predators, will eventually stabilize without human intervention. Peterson tests this assumption as if it were a scientific hypothesis, and rejects it. Research reveals that moose populations surged upward in the early 1980s when the number of wolves on the island declined and crashed in 1996 when eighty percent of them died, primarily from starvation. These facts, combined with the possibility that the island's highly inbred wolf population may disappear completely, prompt the author to assert that the Isle Royale will challenge NPS policy. "In this case, there are no management conflicts brought on by neighboring jurisdictions, and the NPS is not handicapped by lack of information on its resources," says Peterson. "Specific ecological goals and thresholds for action should be established and continually examined through time."

Natural Regulation in Yellowstone National Park's Northern Range discusses issues of grazing elk. Dan Huff and John Varley with the NPS assert that current elk populations do not exceed the ecological carrying capacity of the Northern Range. They conclude that the Northern Range is not overgrazed by ecological standards. Their study explores the history of natural regulation as a policy in the NPS, asserting that the diversity of opinions surrounding the controversial policy are frequently lost in the media, as journalists attempt to distill the debate into two opposing views. "The natural regulation controversy is as complex as the ecological system that inspires and drives it," the authors write. The policy was taken on as a experimental model in Yellowstone. But as a model it does not meet the restrictive definitions of scientific method, say the authors. There are few controls, many variables left unmeasured, and it is unclear about what is being tested and how the policy might succeed or fail. And although it is often discussed in reference to elk management, the policy was actually employed as a multifaceted attempt to restore a kind of ecological equity to management of Yellowstone's plant and animal communities. In the opinion of these authors, the discourse over science-driven and value-driven opinion will and should continue, since neither scientific thinking nor social values are immutable.

Gerald Wright of the U.S. Geological Survey, Biological Resources Division summarizes the main points found in the studies in a paper titled, Wildlife Management in the National Parks: Questions in Search of Answers. Wright also includes the comments, suggestions and questions offered by members of the audience who heard the oral presentations in August 1996. He emphasizes the importance of an "experimental management approach with continued monitoring of conditions both in and outside the respective parks" to ensure that we continue to learn from our actions, adjusting our policies and practices as necessary.
Ecological Applications is a journal published four times a year by the Ecological Society of America (ESA). Copies of the above articles are available free of charge to the press through the Society's Public Affairs Office. Members of the press may also obtain copies of ESA's entire family of publications, which includes Ecology, Ecological Applications, Ecological Monographs, and Conservation Ecology. Others interested in copies of articles should contact the Reprint Department at the address in the masthead.

Founded in 1915, the Ecological Society of America (ESA) is a scientific, non-profit, organization with over 7000 members. Through ESA reports, journals, membership research, and expert testimony to Congress, ESA seeks to promote the responsible application of ecological data and principles to the solution of environmental problems. For more information about the Society and its activities, access ESA's web site at:

Ecological Society of America

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