The Magazine

The Naive Moose

And other cutting-edge biodiversity problems.

Jun 11, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 37 • By WOODY WEST
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HAS THE NAIVE MOOSE popped up on your mental radar? One of the fashionable items on the green agenda, under the rubric of biodiversity, is the reintroduction of species to territory from which they have disappeared—many of them no doubt emigrating to California and Oregon. The reintroduction of large carnivores like bears and wolves can make existence precarious for beasts such as moose that have been idyllically doing whatever moose do when their predators vanish. Inserting bears and wolves back into the neighborhood "can be a field day for the predators and a rout for their prey," as a recent New York Times account put it. Lacking fear, the moose became fast food for the hungry returnees.

The lead researcher of this reintroduction exercise, Dr. Joel Berger, a biologist at the University of Nevada at Reno, said, "We were dealing with moose that had not seen or smelled bears or wolves for about 45 to 70 years....We basically showed that these animals were indeed truly naive."

So how did the intrepid Dr. Berger arrive at his conclusion? One of his techniques in Wyoming was to intrude into the huge ruminants’ neighborhood, occasionally wearing "a moose suit," and to lob snowballs containing wolf and bear urine or feces at them. Moose in Alaska, which have been contending with predators for years, were hostile. The naive moose of Wyoming remained phlegmatic.

This sounds like a classic Bob Newhart telephone routine. Bob, as grant evaluator: "Let’s see if I’ve got this, Dr. Berger—you wear a moose suit out in the woods...and you, you toss snowballs at the big guys, that right? And the snowballs contain, ah, bear and wolf urine and feces....Laughing? No, no—something must have caught in my throat. Well, it sounds like real interesting research, and a couple of mil’ ought to underwrite it, you think? We’ll get back to you on this, Dr. Berger—yes, we’ll call you. By the way, where do you buy your moose suits?"

There are quite a number of these predator reintroduction projects going on, evidently, even though the majority of them have been unsuccessful, according to the news story. But that hardly deters researchers; indeed, it probably increases their fervor. Much of the money for these endeavors will surely come from you, via the feds. That, in turn, could lead to some vicious infighting, if it’s not going on already.

The Forest Service likely has created a SWAT team to blunt the Fish and Wildlife Service’s blue-ribbon task force, both furiously grabbing for jurisdiction. Each will solicit support from earnest lobbyists of the well-funded ecological lobby. Whichever department emerges victorious, of course, there quickly will be created a web of sub-agencies, offices, and swarms of bureaucratic chiefs and chieftains—in fact, each department will rev up, duplicating the other’s flow chart to grab a slice of the action.

There will be established a "Division of Species Reintroduction," with jurisdiction over an "Office of Transplanted Predators." Reporting to these new warrants will be the "Section on Ursine Analysis" and the "Section on Lupine Evaluation." Presiding over the entire enterprise will be a departmental undersecretary, with the usual flock of special assistants and deputies to the special assistants. The ambitious process eventually will swell, as bureaucracies always do, to include audio-visual teams to record the re-adaptation, a flotilla of helicopters and snowmobiles to get the researchers into those far reaches, where it is a long way between 7-Elevens.

There will have to be a "Bureau of Moose Adaptation," of course, charged with reeducation for the "truly naive." In the despotic times in which we live, that function suggests quadruped "reeducation camps" for the most clueless of the moose—those perhaps who kick the noxious snowballs back at Dr. Berger and his co-adjutors.

This further conjures images of tracts of wilderness surrounded by palisade fences topped with razor wire into which "at risk" moose will be herded. Platoons of graduate students majoring in the sexy new specialty of Edenic Restoration (motto: "Where only man is vile") will lecture them on wellness measures to pursue after the wolves and the bears are loosed among them. Then...but this quickly gets out of hand.

The question does arise, though—do the bears and the wolves really long to be back there where it’s root-hog-or-die, so to speak? The zealots of species reintroduction doubtless are as nobly motivated as a biped can be. Might there, however, be another consideration: Once organic connections are disrupted, is it possible to restore them? Or is it pretty much an exercise in the factitious? And the hubristic?

Woody West is associate editor of the Washington Times.