Apex Predators: A Power for Good?

By Will Parish|May 27, 2014

Catching up on emails recently, I came across a link titled “How Wolves Change Rivers”. I thought, “Come on. How could a wolf change a river?”

Well, it turns out that the video unveiled a phenomenon called “trophic cascade.” Think avalanche. It’s an ecological process of destruction that starts by getting rid of the top trophic level, the one filled by an apex predator (think wolf, shark, human). No one home to keep the population of the herbivores in check equals destruction all the way down the food chain. The 5-minute video tells the Yellowstone trophic cascade story.


For almost 7 decades, cattle ranchers exterminated the wolf population in Yellowstone National Park. The unintended consequence of removing the apex predator was that populations of deer and elk exploded, eating every bit of vegetation they could get their teeth on. No more riverside vegetation meant erosion reigned supreme, devastating riparian ecosystems and the species that depend on them – birds, reptiles, insects, butterflies, wildflowers, and native grasses, to name a few.

After years of political wrangling, conservation biologists prevailed, and the grey wolf was reintroduced into the park. The beneficial impact of their presence immediately became apparent. For example, the wapiti learned to stop munching their way through the valleys and gorges where wolves could easily ambush them. Trees and vegetation thrived. Native flora was able to reestablish – by providing food and shelter to an enormous variety of plants and animals, biodiversity increased. The wolves even controlled smaller predators like the coyote, allowing the beaver, otter, fox, rabbit, songbird, eagle, and bear populations to prosper.

And here’s the remarkable part: the presence of wolves rejuvenated the rivers. Riverbank erosion decreased. The channels deepened, small fish-friendly pools formed, the course of the river itself changed – all thanks to the recovering vegetation stabilizing the riverbanks.


I could not help but consider the beneficial effect of one apex species on its ecosystem, and think of another apex predator – humans. Is it possible for humans to have a beneficial influence on our environment? If so, how? I think we are in a moment in time unlike any other where movement on three fronts could coalesce into an environmental Renaissance of humankind.

The first front is legislative. Part of the wolf reintroduction entailed legislative victories. Perhaps the reintroduction of No Child Left Inside could assist our species in becoming a more positive shaper of our ecosystems. Sponsored by Senators Jack Reed (D-RI) and Mark Kirk (R-IL), and Representatives John Sarbanes (D-MD) and Mike Fitzpatrick (R-PA) on July 16, 2013, NCLI would make standards-based environmental education and hands-on, project-based learning a national education priority. If passed it would:

  • Require states to develop environmental literacy plans that include environmental education standards and teacher training for pre-K through 12th grade.
  • Direct the Secretary of Education to award Professional Development grants to schools and partnering community organizations to create rigorous, interdisciplinary environmental education curricula and teacher training.
  • Authorize the Secretary of Education to award competitive matching grants to programs that partner schools and community organizations to improve and support environmental education.

As Representative John Sarbanes (D-MD) so eloquently put it: “Environmental education must be a national priority. Hands-on, outdoor interaction with the environment enhances student achievement — not only in science, but also in reading, math, and social studies. By investing in education that will grow the next generation of innovators, scientists, and environmental stewards, we will prepare our workforce of the future to meet the many economic, environmental, and energy-related challenges our country is facing.”

Movement on the legislative front is a good first step. Ensuring that every student can get really compelling Environment Based Education (EBE) is the next step – and it drives Ten Strands’ mission. We are fortunate to have Dr. Gerald Lieberman on our Advisory Board, who for decades, has been at the forefront of environment-based learning. The idea is this: young people learn best when their time in the classroom is augmented by experiences in the wider community and the outdoors. Jerry not only conceives and writes about new K–12 education models, he actually gets them implemented on a statewide scale as he describes in his new book, Education and the Environment Creating Standards-Based Programs in Schools and Districts, that I highly recommend.

Bringing the classroom into nature and nature into the classroom is something I advanced during my decade of designing and teaching Environmental Science at Gateway High School in San Francisco where I sponsored both a Team Green Club and a Garden Club. Students were so enthusiastic and engaged in the projects – planning, designing, building and implementing, and then sharing and informing other students school-wide about what they were up to that it pushed me toward more hands-on and project based learning.

The third front involves a shift in the mentality that can drive commerce away from a “profits only” focus to one that takes ecosystem health into account. Recently, I had the great pleasure of introducing Dr. Daniel Goleman at the San Francisco Botanical Gardens annual luncheon. His book Ecological Intelligence: How Knowing the Hidden Impacts of What We Buy Can Change Everything describes a path toward a triple bottom line that is already happening. As the Internet allows transparency to penetrate into the world of producing, packaging, distributing, and discarding the goods we buy, consumers are shocked to learn about the detrimental effects on ecosystems like coral reefs, estuaries, rivers, and people’s lives. Could the balance of power be shifting from seller to buyer?

These three synergies happening in legislation, education, and commerce hold the promise for humans, the ultimate apex predator, to improve life for everyone on planet earth.

Much like the wolves transformed Yellowstone, come to think of it.

Will Parish
This article was written by Will Parish

Will Parish is a credentialed public high school science educator with a 30-year record of innovative accomplishments in the environmental and educational fields. He taught Environmental Science at Gateway High School in San Francisco, and now serves on the board. He served on the California State Board of Education’s Curriculum Commission and then founded Ten Strands as a nonprofit organization to support California’s efforts to bring environmental literacy to all K–12 students in the state.


  • Eric Austensen

    This is an amazing video !!! Thanks for sharing.

  • linda

    What a beautiful video. I have never thought of myself as an apex predator but clearly I am (we are). By teaching awareness of that principle and how our daily buying choices influence our planet you heighten our responsibility for our fragile, yet magnificent, ecosystem. Thanks Will, for this important work. I look forward to reading more of your posts!

  • Jerry Tone

    Great points Will!
    While you’re collecting info on apex predators, add sharks to your list:


  • Shawn Sears

    Hi Will!
    I really enjoyed this post.
    I am of course in favor of movement on all three fronts that you write about. And am active with fronts 2 & 3 mostly, especially front 2. Here’s to the synergy!