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August 4, 2007

Fences and Boundaries: Is the grass always greener?

What is that old adage about the grass being greener on the other side? Well, there is certainly some truth to that statement, but it depends on which side the person is on when those words are uttered. A little while back I attended a lecture given by conservation biologist Michael Soule. He showed several slides the land bordering fencelines along park boundaries. The images he showed were of highly overgrazed lands next to much more healthy lands on the other side of the fence. Surprisingly, the overgrazed land was within park boundaries, while the healthy land was outside the boundaries. The images Soule showed were of Rocky Mountain National Park in central Colorado, where the dominant land management practice in the park has been to let the elk populations thrive. With wolves all but erradicated from the Colorado landscape, the elk have no ecological forces keeping their populations in check. But in terms of the wolf, there are myriad political forces keeping their populations in check. There are many options on the table, ranging from birth control for elk, to allowing limited hunting. But one of the more controversial proposals would bring wolves back to Colorado. Why is it controversial? Because a wee bit of politics has mixed with some science to create (no, not political science)-- the strikingly familiar dynamics of environmental politics in the U.S.

Let me explain: elk have become the meal-ticket for RMNP, the National Park Service, and the firmly entrenched tourism industry in the gateway town of Estes Park. Elk parade through the streets of Estes, munching on grass at McDonalds and lazing on the lawn of the Stanley Hotel. Tourists stop and snap photos of the large, charismatic herbivores; sometimes the lucky folks can even do so from the air-conditioned comfort of their adventurously named Land Rovers, Explorers, Expeditions, and Navigators; or perhaps their more aptly named Suburbans. Additionally, a rather vociferous alliance of anti-wolf forces (mostly ranchers fearing the cow-snacking tendencies of the gray wolf)has gained a stable foothold in the ag-friendly state of Colorado.

My point is not that there is something wrong with elk, actually I find them to be rather stunning creatures. Nor is my point that people should actually get out of their cars to appreciate wildlife (at least not my central point). My point is that we must be watchful of the power politics can have over scientific evidence. Science may not always be able to provide the "best" answer, but we must be watchful of our political leaders obscuring empirical evidence necessary to sound policymaking. Sound familiar?

I could not locate the slides that Prof. Soule showed that day, but I am often reminded of the landscape and ecological impacts of fences, borders and boundaries. These images are absolutely stunning examples of how land management practices around the world can have a sometimes devastating effect on ecological systems. Enjoy these images, my guess is that you will not always be able to guess on which side the park sits! Looks can be deceiving!

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