Chasing the canine connection

When Cristina Eisenberg first heard a wolf howl, she felt comforted and curious.

[Editor's note: Ingrid Ockert is senior pursuing a liberal arts degree with a focus in the history of science ]

When Cristina Eisenberg and her family moved to Montana in 1994, they received a warm welcome from their neighbors. On the first night in their new log cabin, they were greeted by the sonorous howls of nearby wolves.

“I had never heard wild wolves before,” Eisenberg remembers, “It was an incredibly comforting sound, a familiar sound…I felt like I’d been listening to them all my life.”

Cristina Eisenberg has performed much of her work in the Canadian Rockies. (Photo: Alana Eisenberg)

The wolves’ wails awakened a deep curiosity in her. “It was a lot different than the way wolves sound in the movies. It was almost like an ancestral remembering of a sound,” she says. She wasn’t afraid. She was intrigued.

Her desire to learn more about these animals led her to Oregon State University, where she is pursuing a doctorate in forestry. While studying with OSU conservation biologist Bill Ripple, Eisenberg focuses on how predators influence the flow of energy within ecosystems. At the center of her study is the ancient and antagonistic relationship between wolves and humans, a topic that has taken her on a journey from classical literature to the far-flung grasslands of the Rocky Mountains.

Ancient Attitudes

In the Northwest, old animosities have been rekindled as wolf packs have begun to return to the region. Oregonians had poisoned, shot and trapped the last native wolves by the 1940s. Now small wolf packs are recolonizing their ancestral homeland. According to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, there are currently five wolf packs in Oregon. A lone gray wolf appeared near Crater Lake National Park at the end of October for the first time in over 70 years. Oregonians’ reactions to the wolves’ return have been mixed. Naturalists cheer their arrival, while ranchers worry about the safety of livestock.

Eisenberg understands why wolves can make us nervous. As she explains, wolves are self-willed and powerful creatures. They don’t respect human boundaries. They’re big. They kill. They resist our ability to confine and control them. Wolves personify an intrinsic human fear of wildness.

Cristina Eisenberg is the author of The Wolf's Tooth: Trophic Cascades, Keystone Predators and Biodiversity, published by Island Press in 2010. (Photo courtesy of Cristina Eisenberg)

These fears, Eisenberg explains, have driven us to drastically transform the North American continent. Over the last two hundred years, humans have altered North American ecosystems by cutting down forests, killing large predators and extinguishing forest fires. Conservation biologists term this intentional, human alteration of their natural environment “dewilding.”

“Dewilding means to take away those things that humans don’t think that they can control, like fire; deep, dark, tangled forests; and predators,” Eisenberg says. Dewilding, she adds, destroys the natural system of checks and balances that regulates the relationships between predators and prey.

Through her research, she has explored how human fears of wolves, fire and forest have shaped our management of ecosystems. She traces our modern beliefs about wolves back to ancient attitudes. Greek and Roman naturalists, including Aristotle and Pliny the Elder, wrote books depicting large predators as the embodiment of wilderness. The Romans feared both wolves and fire for their powerful, uncontrollable natures.

Europeans, she found, strengthened this link between wolves and wildness. During the Middle Ages, wolves were deemed wyldeor, the “self-willed beasts.” Again, wolves became intrinsically linked to human perception of wilderness. For a more modern view, Eisenberg turned to 20th century Swiss psychoanalyst Karl Jung, who studied how humans had internalized a fear of wildness. According to his theories, wolves perfectly fit the universal “predator” archetype: powerful, vigorous and wild. Myths and stories, such as “Peter and the Wolf,” encouraged predator removal and reinforced this archetype. When the Europeans came to North America, Eisenberg says, they carried these beliefs with them, cleared forests to create farms and killed wolves to protect their homes.

Over time, these activities greatly weakened western North American ecosystems, she adds. She learned that in 1935, fifteen years after wolves had been eradicated from the state of Washington, ecologist Olaus Murie reported that the elk population had exploded on the Olympic Peninsula. Murie observed that the elk herds had over-browsed the vegetation in their habitat and prevented the growth of new foliage. Without new trees, there was no shelter for small birds, rodents and plants. Similarly, in 1998, ecologists Michel Soule and Reed Noss concluded that over-browsing by elk had led to the disappearance of beaver from Yellowstone National Park. Numerous species which had attracted Americans to the West had dwindled due to dewilding.

Gray Wolf captured by a remote camera in Waterton Lakes National Park (Photo courtesy of Parks Canada and Cristina Eisenberg)

Driven by fear, says Eisenberg, Americans had dewilded the West without realizing the full consequences. “We thought that we would prosper if we made the continent a safe place to be. We did all of this with the best of intentions, not understanding what we were doing. It‘s counterintuitive that these big scary forces of nature — wolves, fire — are exactly the things that we need to have full, resilient ecosystems.”

Restoration Through “Rewilding”

As a conservation biologist, Eisenberg hopes that she and others can counter human dewilding with natural “rewilding.” The term “rewild” is used by conservation biologists to describe intentional human efforts to restore damaged ecosystems. Rewilding, Eisenberg says, supports North American ecosystems by promoting wildlife management policies that protect intact systems and stabilize weakened ones.

Her field work takes her to the vast grasslands of northern Montana, where she counts elk, collects wolf scat and measures aspen growth. In the meadows that she has studied, Eisenberg has found that aspen trees are returning to their areas of historic abundance. Over the years, her research has shown that the presence of wolves can transform meadows back into forests by reducing the browsing pressure on young trees. She also studies how other factors, such as the occurrence of wildfires, contribute to ecosystem health.

As wolves return to the western United States, the biodiversity of these ecosystems appears to be increasing, as shown by the research of ecologists such as OSU’s Bill Ripple. These findings give Eisenberg hope that humans can repair the ecological damages incurred over the past two hundred years. “Knowing what we do today about how beneficial wolf presence is to whole ecosystem processes, it is in our best interests to allow wolves to settle as many places as is practical,” she says.

Ultimately, Eisenberg is confident that humans can live peacefully alongside wolves. While her historical studies have shown her the challenges of wolf and human relations, she believes that humans can overcome their historic fears. Our primitive ancestors, she explains, co-evolved to live with large predators. “I believe we can coexist with far more wolves than we may think in places like Oregon and thus help realize the full ecological benefits of this natural recolonization.”

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Learn more about top predators and their influence on trophic cascades in High Alert.

Read Eisenberg’s reflection on studying wolves, On Red Owl Mountain.

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