– As told to John Hassell
Until he retired in 2000, John Theberge was a professor with the Faculty of Environmental Studies at the University of Waterloo. John’s co-researcher and wife, Mary Theberge, is a wildlife illustrator and educator. The Theberges are Ontario’s leading experts on wolves and wolf conservation. Their most recent book, The Ptarmigan’s Dilemma, is a finalist for the Writers’ Trust Non-Fiction Prize.
As wildlife biologists, we have spent most of our adult lives saying that science is a means to better understand and ultimately appreciate the rich diversity of life on earth – the amazing result of nearly four billion years of evolution. As educators, we have tried to spread the word about the high cost of our consumption habits. We believe that living in a sustainable way begins with an inquisitive mind searching for an understanding of the workings of the natural world.
Every spring, we record bird songs as we paddle our canoe down Ontario’s South River. We hear longer and longer pauses between songs, which we believe is indicative of the loss of bird abundance and diversity. Ontario is scarred by widespread habitat loss and degradation, and over 200 species are now at risk.
An ecological price tag is attached to everything we do, yet people often don’t realize this. In a rural area near Kitchener- Waterloo, we spoke with a property owner who was upset because he no longer heard frog calls after he had logged his wetland which had caused the water table to drop. He told us that, had he realized the implications of logging, he wouldn’t have done it. Understanding how nature works will increase our love of nature and make us better stewards of it.
Our manicured lifestyle – for example, being able go into shops in climate-controlled malls that have everything we could possibly want – gives us a false sense of security. But the writing is on the wall: our economic systems have repeatedly failed to protect us. We are undervaluing ecosystem services, and that’s leading to their rapid degradation. We owe future generations a better legacy than that.
When we were growing up, we were able to drink water directly out of the lakes and rivers. We can’t do that anymore. We had easy access to nature through our schools, families and youth groups. The wonder of nature starts at an early age and is an instinct that grows when encouraged. Too often, however, it is suppressed by a lack of access to nature at home and school, so much so that kids are suffering from nature deficit disorder. More than ever we need organizations like Ontario Nature, with its Nature Guardians program, to create opportunities for kids to wonder about and explore their natural environment.
Young people today need the kinds of experiences we had. Early in our relationship, we went on a trip to Algonquin Provincial Park with only some felt sleeping bags and no tent, hoping it wouldn’t rain, which it did, of course. But we didn’t leave and were rewarded by the appearance of several majestic wolves as the sun poked through the mist.
We consider Algonquin Provincial Park our home ecosystem, having spent more time there than anywhere else, studying and tracking wolves. We followed in the footsteps of our mentor Dr. Doug Pimlott, then a professor of zoology at the University of Toronto. Doug was a great organizer and internationally recognized biologist. He was also a leading researcher on wolves in Algonquin until he ran afoul of the government for his efforts advocating on their behalf.
Big carnivores are integral to the Canadian identity and serve a critical role in our ecosystems through trophic cascade. Yet, in a misguided effort to protect caribou, the government of British Colombia is practising wolf control. This is mind boggling when, at the same time, millions of dollars are being spent on wolf reintroduction programs in Yellowstone Park – which straddles Wyoming, Montana and Idaho – after wolves were extirpated there. How much do we need to fragment and degrade our wolf populations before we value them?
When we were researching wolves in Algonquin, we would fit the animals with electronic collars so that we could track them. Sometimes we ended up knocking on the doors of hunters’ houses, where we’d find the collars in garages and basements, along with the carcasses. Other times, we found wolves with their heads nearly severed. The biggest threat to wolf survival is people. Experience shows that isolated islands of protected areas do not adequately protect these animals because they roam across such great distances. Thankfully, after five years of lobbying in partnership with the conservation community, in 1993 we were able to get the government of Ontario to establish a no-kill zone around Algonquin Park where wolves normally range, which we believe is the first of its kind in North America. We have since proposed a more ambitious agenda of increasing the four percent that is protected to 15 percent (see www.wolfstudies.ca).
Our new book, The Ptarmigan’s Dilemma, is an exploration of the ways life adapts, persists and is able to organize itself. The book reviews the dynamics of ecology and evolution for the layperson. Life on earth is resilient and will last for another billion years, but we risk losing our place here and are already impoverishing our descendents. In some places in the Arctic, caribou and whales are laced with carcinogens and other toxins. We are the only species that has the intellectual ability to look into the future and understand the need to adjust our lifestyles. We hope that people will get motivated to do so before it is too late.
Doomsday scenarios have not led us toward a sustainable model, and many politicians, seemingly immune to facts, still talk of endless growth. We need to support the development of emotional connections with nature and ultimately become stewards rather than masters. Jean Chrétien doubled the national park system in Canada. When we asked him the secret to his success, he replied, “I just did it.” So that’s the key! We need to strengthen people’s ties with nature through science and make the rest happen.