Grizzly, Gophers, & Thistle
Changing ecosystems, changing perceptions: telling the story of grizzlies, gophers, and thistles in Yellowstone through a scientist's own observations
YERC founder Bob Crabtree knew right away that the evolution of a new ecosystem he was observing in Yellowstone's Lamar Valley would be big news. That's why he went straight to the New York Times.
In March 2008, Jim Robbin's article, "In a warmer Yellowstone Park, a shifting environmental balance," described how the proliferation of an invasive plant—the Canada thistle—was a boon for northern pocket gophers: mini-landscape engineers that till the soil to the benefit of thick-rooted plants like the thistle, effectively farming the plants they like to eat. This in turn benefited grizzly bears that dig up the gopher's painstakingly stocked larders—and sometimes the gophers themselves as well. As once marshy areas in the Lamar dried out with a drought beginning in the 2000s, the thistle, pocket gophers, and grizzly bears spread across the landscape.
After walking through the Lamar with Bob, Jim was able to capture the complexity of the new ecosystem in his widely read article as well as the look and feel of the valley itself.
It was a story that illustrated the seriousness of climate change as well as the wonders of nature and science.
It was a realtime, realworld example of how climate change was impacting a pristine ecosystem, and how that ecosystem was responding. It was a story that illustrated the seriousness of climate change as well as the wonders of nature and science.
It was also an unconventional way for a scientist to go public with a finding: at the conception of an idea rather than at the end of the rigorous process of data collection, hypothesis testing, and review. Yet the plausibility of the idea was corroborated by other scientists quoted in the article. And the ecological components of this new ecosystem—the relationship between grizzlies and gophers, that between gophers and the plants they eat, the adaptability of grizzly feeding behavior across their vast landscape—are well documented in the scientific literature. As policymakers considered removing U.S. Endangered Species Act protection for the bears, Bob felt that his observations were worthy of immediate attention. He also felt confident in their credibility, knowing they would be backed up by the research he called for.
Scientists are often afraid of losing their credibility by broaching the thin line between researching conservation’s issues and advocating for the issues they are researching. Even more, they are afraid of being wrong. And perhaps rightly so: Paul Voosen's Greenwire article, "Scientists struggle with limits—and risks—of advocacy," describes social science experiments involving the work of well known climate change scientists and advocates. They find that the general public does indeed perceive a well defined, and often preconceived, boundary of what scientists are and are not allowed to say and do in the public eye. The article even quotes one scientist warning others to be cautious of their opinions as private citizens, much less as representatives of research organizations deeply involved in the issues.
But this is an unhealthy and unfair relationship between science and society. For everyday people to become involved in science, they need to think like scientists: they need to observe, question, and always be open to new ideas. And for science to be open and accessible to everyday people, it needs to open up about the scientific process, not just the results.
For everyday people to become involved in science, they need to think like scientists: they need to observe, question, and always be open to new ideas.
Errors, unknowns, assumptions, and biases are things that all scientists deal with everyday, yet admitting their existence to the public is treated as taboo. Alternative hypotheses are likewise hidden from view, and with them the reality of greater complexity than even these great scientists are capable of understanding, much less describing.
So rather than go along with this unhealthy relationship, Adaptive Ecologists need to be upfront about their work from start to finish, inviting others to observe, comment, and contribute at any stage. You never know what kind of novel ideas may come from an unexpected direction, or what new connections can lead to impactful research. The public likewise needs to break down the barriers banning scientists from our common discourse and isolating science from our everyday lives. Transparency and involvement are needed for that to happen.
We will continue to make our research transparent and available to everyone from the first observations in the field to its final tested and peer-reviewed outcome. And even though this may have seemed unconventional almost a decade ago, we are not alone today. In February 2016, Nobel Prize laureate biologist Carol Greider published her findings online before a traditional scholarly journal, a new trend with a growing acceptance that Amy Harmon wrote about in another New York Times article, "Handful of biologists went rogue and published directly to Internet."
As Bob was describing the "new ecosystem" to the newspaper writer back in 2008, they had no way of knowing that they themselves were part of a new and evolving social system driven by the interaction of people and science.