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Sports editor

Les Winkeler is sports editor and outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan.

When boiled down to its simplest level, man’s role on this planet isn’t that complicated.

Basically, we’ve been given a paradise that meets all our needs — land to be tilled, fresh air, water, animals, fish, fruits and nuts. Our mandate: Don’t screw it up.

Several things have occurred in the past weeks to remind me that man has achieved only meager success in his pursuit of a modest goal.

During a recent trip to Yellowstone National Park, we saw seven wolves, coincidentally enough, about seven percent of the park’s population. In an effort to placate tourists’ fears of visiting the park, wolves were extirpated about a century ago.

As is normally the case when man interferes with nature, the removal of the wolf had unintended consequences. With no predators to control their population, the elk herd grew unchecked.

Elk badly overgrazed riparian areas, causing stream erosion. The combination of erosion and over-grazing led to the demise of willow and aspen trees. The demise of the aspen led to a drop in the beaver population and less habitat for songbirds.

That’s the kind of mess created when man attempts to control nature.

The chain reaction of degradation led to the gray wolf being re-introduced about 20 years ago. There was much consternation at the time that wolves would run wild and create all kinds of havoc. That hasn’t happened.

The wolf population spiked initially, reaching about 175 within the park’s borders. However, nature has a way of moderating things. Wolf numbers dropped back to about 100, a figure biologists see as the carrying capacity for the park.

Yet, those 100 wolves have had a profound effect. The elk population has declined significantly — biologists figure wolves eat about 22 elk per year. In some areas, the damage to riparian areas has been reversed.

Willow and aspen trees are returning. In turn, beaver and songbird populations are also being restored. And, the return of the beaver means more shallow water habitat is being created for other creatures.

No, the wolf introduction hasn’t been a panacea. Some of the damage created by the absence of an apex predator will take years to repair. But, the lesson seems clear: man’s intervention with nature rarely yields positive results.

An accompanying article written by Michael Baltz bears out that conclusion.

Baltz notes that plume hunting almost extirpated egrets and herons at the beginning of the 20th century. The plumes were in high demand for women’s hats. In some cases, entire bird carcasses were used to create hand-held fans for the fashion conscious.

Fortunately, the Migratory Bird Act ended the indiscriminate killing. The herons and egrets have recovered nicely. However, the act was too late to save the passenger pigeon, a species man managed to wipe out despite historic populations estimated at between three and five billion.

That’s a dreadful legacy, even given humankind’s dismal track record when dealing with nature.

Finally, there was the devastation caused by Hurricane Michael in Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas. The storm did untold damage to natural areas in the South.

It’s all a sobering reminder of the fragility of nature and the ability of man to inflict lasting damage on the natural world.

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LES WINKELER is the outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at les.winkeler@thesouthern.com, or call 618-351-5088 / On Twitter @LesWinkeler.

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