The intuition of the public on the importance of certain species.

February 23, 2024
Gord Miller

Wolves and caribou have always been of central interest and concern among the supporters of Earthroots. There are lots of other species at risk that would be worthy of such communal concern but there is something about wolves and caribou that piques the public intuition that theses animals have greater importance in the ecosystems they occupy than is immediately obvious. And, of course, in the jargon of ecologists, they do. Woodland caribou are termed to be ‘umbrella species’ in the boreal forest and wolves are coined ecologically as ‘keystone species’ in their habitat.

Umbrella species are so named because conservation biologists have realized that if they manage a landscape for the protection and enhancement of an umbrella species they create an ‘umbrella effect.’ That is that many of the other species in the same ecological community indirectly benefit from that protection. In theOntario example, managing human activity in the boreal forest to minimize the impact on woodland caribou automatically maintains the ecosystem in a condition which supports biodiversity such as the rare woodpeckers, song birds and old-forest dependent mammals which are parts of the boreal biodiversity.

The keystone role of wolves is a different concept but is equally fundamental.Keystone species are highly influential in maintaining the structure and function of ecosystems. As apex predators they ultimately determine the size and composition of the herbivore population and consequently how those herbivores impact the plant community. The best illustration of this occurred in recent decades in Yellowstone Park where the land was being protected but the wolves had been eliminated by humans years before. The park was without atop carnivore and distortions in the biodiversity reflected that. Elk populations boomed to problematic levels that over grazed the lowland vegetation destabilizing riverbanks and led to the disappearance of other important community species like beaver. In 1995 conservationists reintroduced the grey wolf to Yellowstone and within a couple of decades elk populations fell to more natural levels, water quality improved and a variety of species like beavers, eagles, foxes and badgers reappeared in their historic numbers and functions. The ‘keystone’ role of the wolves reestablished the original structure and function of the ecosystem.

So Earthroots supporters may not realize your important roles as ecological guardians of the whole ecosystem, but that is what your unwavering interest and support for wolves and caribou amounts to. And as Earthroots stands against the continuing assaults on the integrity of Ontario’s ecosystems, we thank you for that continuing support.

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