Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Faith Like a Mountain
distributed 4/27/06 & 5/13/2011 - ©2006, 2011

Rocky Mountain National Park is dealing with a big problem. There are way too many elk making themselves at home within the park boundaries.

The park's problem connects to a theological problem that goes to the very heart of the Christian faith. A dramatic difference between contemporary science and the church's core theology makes it very hard for the church to deal with ecological perspectives.

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Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) is about 60 miles northwest of Denver, Colorado, in the beautiful high peaks along the continental divide. The park and its surrounding area can support about 1,700 elk. There are now about 3,000 of the big animals grazing the lush meadows and the fragile tundra of the park -- and the golf courses of the nearby communities, too. That is almost double the sustainable carrying capacity of the land.

The National Park Service has spent years developing an acceptable way to solve the problem of elk overpopulation. Their dedicated work at wildlife management offer fascinating insights into the wonder and complexity of healthy ecological systems.

When there are too many elk, they eat too much vegetation, and the entire ecosystem suffers. In this particular case, the park elk are very fond of the tender shoots of young aspen trees. Because the elk are eating so many of those shoots, there aren't enough left to provide winter food for other animals that also feed on the small aspen, and there aren't enough aspen trees growing up to replenish forests. When the stands of aspen start to suffer, so do the songbirds, butterflies and beavers who depend on that kind of forest.

There are too many elk because there are no wolves in Colorado to prey on the elk, and thus keep the size of the herds in control. The elk aren't very healthy, either, because there are no wolves to thin out the sick and feeble members of the herd. (The wolf packs were killed off 100 years ago by ranchers and government agents, because the wolves also ate cattle and sheep. Economic interests trumped nature then, as they often do now.)

A few decades ago, before wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park, that region had similar problems with too many elk. When the wolves returned, the elk herds got smaller and healthier, and the elk spent less time in the now-dangerous open meadows. Willows grew back where they had been over-grazed, and the population of songbirds increased. The return of wolves to Yellowstone made the elk stronger, and the entire ecosystem healthier.

Wolves will not be brought back into Rocky Mountain National Park. The Colorado park is much smaller than Yellowstone, and it borders on areas with dense human populations. Instead, RMNP now uses sharpshooters to cull the overgrown elk herds. (The animals that are killed are processed to provide meat for area food banks, and some are used in mountain lion research.) The elk management plan also fences some meadow areas to allow revegetation, and keeps elk moving around the park to distribute their impacts.

The park has to go to a lot of complication and expense to try to replicate what the wolves used to do naturally.

In his famous essay, Thinking Like a Mountain, conservationist Aldo Leopold lifted up the essential role that wolves play in preserving ecological health. He describes the over-grazing that happens when deer populations get out of balance, then he writes:

I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades.

Leopold is seen as a founding figure in the development of a "land ethic" which values the health of a natural system above the individual interests of any member of the community: He wrote, "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."

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The theological principle of eco-justice has been summarized as "the well-being of all humanity on a thriving earth." The writings of Aldo Leopold, the insights of modern ecological science, and the day-to-day experience of national park managers all show us that a thriving earth needs predators -- or else extensive human management to try to replace those natural processes. An eco-justice perspective should affirm that the hunters of the animal realm perform essential services in maintaining ecological health.

But our scriptural heritage sees wolves and their fellow predators as a sign of a fallen or flawed creation. The Bible hopes for a day when those creative and healing ecological forces will end. The radical hope for peace in our Judeo-Christian faith looks for a time when the lion can lie down with the lamb -- and the lamb won't be dinner, because the lion will eat only straw. Those beloved words of Isaiah 11:6-9 hearken back to the idealized world of Genesis 1, where there is no violence, no conflict, and where all the creatures are vegetarian.

Indeed, the Christian faith has generally seen death in any form -- from violence or disease or old age -- as a tragic flaw in the world. The Easter promise that the resurrection of Christ has overcome death lies at the heart of our faith.

But now we know that predation and death are essential to the evolutionary forces that have shaped life on Earth. Wolves eating elk, and bears eating salmon, and woodpeckers eating bark beetles are essential in maintaining the health of the larger environment. How do we reconcile that fact with our theological hopes about a world without any violence? Is the entire history of life on Earth -- a history that goes way, way, way back before any human presence -- reflective of a fallen and flawed state of the creation?

Ethicist Daniel Cowden wrote that a Leopoldian land ethic "thus presents Christianity with a problem, something of a theological knot. Those processes that from an ecoevolutionary perspective are necessary parts of the natural system are, from a theological perspective, precisely the dimensions of the world in need of redemption."

If our faith leads us to look upon death as our greatest enemy, and as a tragic flaw in the structure of the universe, then it will be very hard for us to hold an ethic which celebrates the creative ways in which the predator/prey relationship shapes the world.

In our personal lives, and in the pastoral theology of our churches, we usually have a practical approach to death which is much less polarized. Death is seen as the final stage of our earthly life, and is often affirmed as a blessed relief from pain and suffering. Psychologically, too, we know that we cannot live our lives fully until we come to grips with the inevitability of our own death. Mortality is a gift in bringing meaning to life.

So, too, our faith and ethics will be stronger when we are able to affirm that predation and death are helpful and creative parts of the natural order. While God may -- someday and somehow -- change the world so dramatically that wolves will eat grass and elk will know how to avoid overpopulation, that is not the world we live in now.

As an Easter people, may we live fully and wisely without a fear of death, and so affirm the natural processes that bring life and vitality to our world.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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