Even More Praise of the Dead
When I read Wuerthner’s contribution I was struck by how it could be perceived as “kingdomist”, that is animal “kingdom”-o-centric. Actually “kingdom” is sexist so we should probably pick another word. So I rewrote it from a less “queendomist” perspective… with apologies in advance to anyone who is offended ..
Dead. Death. These are words that we don’t often use to describe anything positive. We hear phases like the walking dead. Death warmed over. Nothing is certain but death and taxes. The Grateful Dead. These are words that do not engender smiles, except among Grateful Dead fans. We bring these pejorative perspectives to our thinking about forests. In particular, some tend to view dead animals as a missed opportunity for a meal. But this really represents an economic value, not a biological value.
From an ecological perspective dead animals are the biological capital critical to the long-term health of the forest ecosystem. It may seem counter-intuitive, but in many ways the health of a forest is measured more by its dead animals than live ones. Dead animals are a necessary component of present forests and an investment in the future forest.
I once visited a District Ranger who went on and on about his plans for an fall elk-hunting trip. Maybe he didn’t realize the importance of dead elk remaining exactly where they should be so that the ecosystem can flourish, instead of the vital nutrients being wasted in a municipal sewage system. Or perhaps a septic tank, depending on where he lives.
I had a good lesson in the value of dead animals a few summers ago when I was taking a class in carnivores. We learned how many different species feed on elk and bison carcasses, from grizzlies and wolves to crows to various invertebrates. And of course, bones and other pieces of animals leach into the soil, nurturing plants.
Dead animals are a biological legacy passed on to the next generation of forest dwellers including future generations of wildflowers and trees..
Dead animals have many other important roles to play in the forest ecosystem. They provide homes for invertebrates.
Dead animals are the biological capital for the forest. Just as floods rejuvenate the river floodplain’s plant communities with periodic deposits of sediment, episodic events like major freezing, starvation or disease events are the only way a forest can recruit the massive amounts of dead animals required for a healthy forest ecosystem. Such infrequent, but periodic events may provide the bulk of a forest’s input of nutrients for a hundred years or more.
All of the above benefits of dead animals are reduced or eliminated by our common forest management practices. Hunting removes these all important nutrients to where they are unavailable to plants. Creation and recruitment of dead animals is not a loss, rather it is an investment in future forests.
If you love birds, you have to love dead animals. If you love fishing, you have to love dead animals. If you want grizzlies to persist for another hundred years, you have to love dead animals.
So when you get a whiff of a particularly ripe carcass, try to view these events in a different light-praise the dead: the forest will be pleased by your change of heart.