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The Ecology of Awareness vs. the Landscape of Fear

The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is a great laboratory that houses all the fauna and flora that make up a complete ecosystem. Granted, humans have greatly altered that system, with invasive species of animals and plants, farms and ranchettes, housing developments, dams and canals; but still pristine and natural wildlife interactions can be observed in the vast  lands  surrounding the Park.

Coyote searching sagebrush for prey

Coyote searching sagebrush for prey

Since wolves were introduced, a lot of the systems have changed, and not only have the wolves been studied, but their effect on elk, coyotes, aspens, watercourses, beavers, grizzlies and more.  Wolves are an apex predator, in other words, at the top of the food chain.  They are the key lynchpin effecting entire landscapes, the beginning of a domino effect, which creates a ripple of change far and wide.  This is referred to as a ‘trophic cascade‘.

'06 swims the Lamar river, emerges onto the road right in front of tourists.

World Famous ’06 shot by hunters in 2012

One of these studied effects is the resurgence of willow and aspens streamside in the Park.  Before wolves were re-introduced (wolves were extirpated from the Park by the early 1930’s), there was not an aspen younger than 80 years old to be found.  Aspen only live about 100 years.  This dearth of young trees was because elk, free of predation, were browsing like cattle, feeding  unfettered in stream bottoms on young shoots.  But once the wolves arrived, everything changed.  An elk in a river bottom is more vulnerable–less escape avenues, harder terrain to navigate quickly.  Over time, elk learned river courses were not where they wanted to linger so the aspens and willows rejuvenated.   With young trees returning, the beavers had food and materials for their dams.  With the beavers returning, slower stream habitat was created for fish and insects, and the fish had shade and cover.  So you get the concept of trophic cascades.

Mature old aspens and gazillions of young aspen clones

Mature old aspens and new young aspen clones with the reintroduction of wolves

One of the ideas that came out of all these new studies was a scientific catch phrase: ‘The Ecology of Fear” or sometimes called “The Landscape of Fear“.  This of course, relates to the idea explained above–that wolves,and all predators, effect prey movement through fear of being killed, and thus mold the landscape.  And this is a true observation, even with humans.  Fear has us humans avoiding certain neighborhoods at night, or packing a gun, or just being more vigilant when hiking around grizzlies.

Grizzly bear

Grizzly bear on a well used forest service road.  Gun or bear spray?  What do you carry?

The world of nature and its observations, scientific or not, can be compared to a room full of individuals.  Each person describes the experience through their own lens; in a sense it is like a vast hall of mirrors playing tricks on the observer.  The Landscape of Fear is only one way to describe the play of nature, and I feel we do a great disservice to tag Life through this lens.  We demean non-humans, reducing animals to little more than reactive and fearful creatures.  Fear is a useful emotion. Without it survival would not be possible. But fear does not describe the whole and the complexity.  I prefer to think of it as the Landscape of Intelligence and Adaptation.

Elk herd in valley on a warm day

Elk herd grazing in winter

For instance, with their native predator back, the elk relearned their landscape, reconnected with their instincts, re-quickened their alertness and intelligence–much like a person who walks in grizzly bear country as opposed to walking a trail on the California coast.  This kind of alertness, although born out of our universal need to survive, is an act in Consciousness.  Elk, nor any other animal, are not walking around fearful all the time.  They are aware, alert, ready to adapt to new circumstances. They feed in the open where they can run, they distrust and don’t like fences that hinder their freedom to escape, and they stay close to forest cover where its harder for wolves to out maneuver them.  But they also are frisky, feed early before storms, move continuously for better forage, adapt their location for wind and weather protection, and are forever curious.  They are intelligent.

elk and snow

We have all seen people who are frozen with fear, or their outlook on life is clouded by paranoia.  They are not healthy mentally, nor happy. And their personal Landscape of Fear becomes one of obsession with protection as their world becomes narrower.  Clearly then, this is not the natural state.

Fat Marmot

Alert Marmot

The natural state is one of relaxed awareness, able to draw on whatever appropriate response is necessary at any moment. It is a flexible state of consciousness, with the ability to learn and grow, move and adapt.  This is the lens through which I view the natural world. This is the mirror I feel dignifies wildlife and all of Life.

Bear scent trees and leave their hairs

Happy bear makes a tree rub