Andrea Scarfo Elective 1

NR 435: Contemporary Conservation Issues 

One of the first elective courses I took in pursuit of my Sustainability Dual Major was NR 435, Contemporary Conservation Issues. This class provided a foundation in ecological relationships and an introduction to the major issues in environmental conservation. We explored the connections which exist in the natural world, and how the various environmental issues society faces today effect these connections. The course gave us the foundations we needed to understand the complex natural systems that exist such as biodiversity and ecosystem ecology. Using these foundations, we addressed how human issues such as population growth and careless consumption will cause habitat loss and degradation, water scarcity, pollution, and climate change.

I used my systems thinking approach learned in SUST 401 to better understand the conservation issues posed in NR 435. One case study we explored in NR 435 that really solidified my understanding of systems thinking was the Yellowstone Wolf Impact Study. The study found the reintroduction of gray wolves in Yellowstone National Park in 1995 had improved the health of streams and rivers. Even though Yellowstone elk were still preyed upon by black and grizzly bears, cougars and, to a lesser extent, coyotes, the absence of wolves took a huge amount of predatory pressure off the elk. This caused, elk populations to grow; pushing Yellowstone’s carrying capacity. Without gray wolves and other large predators in the park, elk grazed riverside willows down to knee height. The loss of vegetation caused issues for beavers, who need willows to survive in winter. When wolves were reintroduced to the Yellowstone ecosystem, elk and deer numbers were reduced, triggering a trophic cascade resulting in the return of the parks beaver population. As the beavers spread and built new dams and ponds, the cascade effect continued. Beaver dams have multiple effects on stream hydrology providing new habitats for fish and songbirds. The video we watched in class about the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone can be found here!

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