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The Ripple (and Beschta) Effect

Posted by Rob Klavins at Feb 05, 2010 12:00 AM |

Two OSU scientists continue to help pile on the evidence that top predators are critical to healthy ecosystems

William Ripple, John Beschta, and their students at OSU have made great contributions to the study of ecology.  In particular, they have demonstrated and publicized the important role top predators play in maintaining healthy landscapes.  Click here to read a recent and fascinating article demonstrating how this fact is being rediscovered across the globe.

Ecology can be understood in very simple terms, but it is also an incredibly complex field of study.  I distinctly remember the first time I ever had an understanding of it.  I was fishing with my dad on a small Wisconsin lake and asking lots of confounding questions as my dad explained to me how the big lake – that is to say Lake Michigan – was full of critters that didn’t belong there.  


We’d accidentally brought in lamprey and alewives (since then we’ve also brought in zebra & quagga mussels, gobies, spiny waterfleas, asian carp, and more).  To solve those problems, we were now poisoning rivers and had purposely brought in salmon from the Pacific Ocean.  Now alewife numbers were too low to keep up the numbers of salmon we enjoyed catching and on which little towns like the one we were in depended.  Others thought that was just fine because the salmon might be responsible for the declining number of smelt.  Still others were just thankful that the beaches on which other little towns depended were no longer littered with piles of rotting alewives. 



It all seemed pretty complicated, but eventually my father simplified it for me.

He told me to recast my red and white bobber towards some reeds that looked like a good ambush place for a bass.  As it hit the water with a plop, he told me to watch the ripples.  “Even if you can’t see it, everything is connected” he said.  “Mess with nature too much, toss something in, and you get a ripple effect.”  I didn’t get it right away.

We always had an ongoing competition over the summer to see who could catch the most fish.  It provided bragging rights for an entire year, so the stakes were high.  “See, even though you didn’t mean to, you just made my bobber move around more - maybe enough to make my worm look appetizing to a perch.  It’s kind of like that.  No matter how smart we think we are, we can’t possibly understand what effect it will have.  Especially when man messes around with nature.”

In its most basic terms, ecology made sense.  Everything, including us, was and is connected.  My understanding of ecology has since been recomplicated and resimplified many times over.  But one thing remains simple and clear: messing with nature almost always seems to have unintended and unanticipated consequences. 

Admittedly, in some cases we’ve messed things up so badly that we need to do some work to reintroduce natural processes.  Wolves needed to be brought back to Yellowstone.  Some fire suppressed forests need to be thinned.  Sometimes lakes need to be poisoned to stop the spread of an invasive fish.

Where management is necessary, reintroducing and learning to live with natural processes should be our ultimate goal.  It’s in our best interests to learn to live with nature rather than futilely try to control and micromanage it.

We’d be a lot better off if we’d been more careful when we decided to open up the Welland Canal.  It’s too bad we weren’t more enlightened when we decided it would be a good idea to try to increase the size of game herds by eliminating wolves.  At the end of the day, it’s a whole lot simpler not to mess things up in the first place. 

ODFW elk feedingModern day ecologists are now able to act as Monday morning quarterbacks looking back to see the unintended consequences of those actions – in the case of wolves we got overpopulations of elk, degraded streams, more coyotes, fewer songbirds and frogs for a start.  Thanks to folks like Ripple and Beschta, we’re losing the excuse of ignorance to justify repeating past mistakes. 

The science is piling up and the article summarizes some of the most recent findings from around the world.

Few species have faced such vitriolic hatred from humans as the world's top predators. Considered by many as pests—often as dangerous—they have been gunned down, poisoned, speared, 'finned', and decimated across their habitat.

New research over the past few decades is showing just how vital these predators are to ecosystems. Biologists have long known that predators control populations of prey animals, but new studies show that they may do much more. From controlling smaller predators to protecting river banks from erosion to providing nutrient hotspots, it appears that top predators are indispensable to a working ecosystem.

As Beschta says, "the underlying conclusion of our research is that loss of large predators has been incredibly important. Where we go next is up to society based on this 'new' information."

Russ and WolfEcology is complicated.  But it’s also simple.  The article is worth a read, but it is well summarized by the man many call the father of ecology – Aldo Leopold.  “The key to intelligent tinkering,” he said, “is to keep all the parts”. 

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