A photo of a red wolf in Joel Sartore’s Photo Ark exhibition.

We Don’t Know What We’ll Be Missing

My daughter took a book out of the library recently that talked about wolves in Yellowstone — fortuitous timing, since I’m heading there soon. As most parents of young, curious children do, I learned so much from reading this with her.

As it turns out, early 20th century National Park Service records show that gray wolves in Yellowstone were killed — shot by hunters and rangers. They were, in fact, encouraged to do so; the wolves were seen as undesirable to the influx of park visitors and detrimental to surrounding cattle and livestock industries. By 1926, the wolves were gone. (This is the part where my daughter cried. Understandably so.)

The effects of this extermination were unforeseen — and drastic. With the wolves gone, the elk population grew out of control, which hurt the willow and aspen trees they grazed upon (and damaged beaver populations as well). Without wolves as predators, the coyote population also increased, thereby reducing the populations of their prey, ground squirrels — and subsequently the badgers who relied on those squirrels for food. Even wild flowers ceased growing, since mountain sheep trampled fields, which had — until that point — been frequented by wolves.

Now the wolves are back — it’s been about 20 years since their successful reintroduction — and the effects have been profound. It took decades to see what we’d be missing — and many more to see what we could gain back.

Photographer Joel Sartore has a beautiful portrait of a gray wolf that is hanging in the National Geographic Museum today as part of the Photo Ark exhibition. This wolf does not live in the wild, but in captivity, at the Endangered Wolf Center in Eureka, Missouri. This wolf’s portrait is in the part of the exhibition that I like to think of as the “hope” room. It is a collection of photos of endangered species that are making a comeback. And it is a welcome sight after passing through the room before it, shrouded in white, with portraits of animals that may be the last of their species — ever.

What I’ve designated the “hope room” at the Photo Ark exhibition, National Geographic Museum, Washington, DC.

One of the most important things we can do to protect wildlife is understand, deeply and holistically, their importance to this planet. There is still so much we don’t know — and so much we need to understand before it’s too late. Today more than ever, we need to support the scientists, explorers, and educators who are identifying what we still have and why we need to protect it. Today, more than ever, we need to explore and protect our planet and the animals (ourselves included) that inhabit it.

And I’m talking about all species of wildlife — not just the furry variety. We still know so little about the ocean. Oceanographer Sylvia Earle estimates that only 5 percent of the ocean is seen by human eyes. And ocean explorer Bob Ballard has said we have better maps of Mars than our own ocean. Today only about 2 percent of the ocean is under some kind of governmental protection, despite the fact that 71 percent of our planet covered by salt water. But we can change that.

Pretending to be brave by a buffalo in Yellowstone, 2007.

So today, on World Wildlife Day, go find out something about the wildlife you share this planet with. Understand why vultures are important. Or poisonous snakes may save your life. Or just get out there and discover a brand new species. Because you don’t know what you might be missing.

As for me, I’m heading to Yellowstone with my mom next week. We hope to see wolves.