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Tuesday, February 3, 2015

It’s a Fine Essay, But the Wolves are too Important for Weak Arguments

This is an essay I wrote for my ENG COMP class - in it we were to summarize a writer's argument, respond with our own argument (agree / disagree / both) and use another source -with quotes.  Not a very complicated assignment, but I enjoyed it.


The wild gray wolf is a majestic creature; noble and savage, both feared and revered. But it is also a threatened species, endangered even despite legislation enacted in order to prevent its complete elimination.  The Endangered Species Act of 1973 helped to ensure that population of gray wolves in the United States could rise from a few hundred when the legislation was passed back up to several thousand (though this number is still dangerously low.)  In her op-ed piece in The New York Times, “High Noon for the Gray Wolf”, Lydia Millet encourages President Obama and other law makers to strengthen the laws that protect this endangered species so that it is not lost to us forever.

In making her argument Millet briefly describes the ebb and flow of the Gray Wolf population numbers in response to the enforcement or relaxing of laws that would protect them.  This is a logical, factual type argument, an argument that can be backed up with scientific studies. She also describes the “greatly exaggerated” fear that wolves threaten sheep and cattle – and this too is grounded in factual data and can be verified with statistical analysis.  But at the conclusion of her essay, Millet’s arguments veer toward the vague and nebulous realm of feel-good, warm fuzzies.  She wants her daughter to have a chance to see wolves in the wild.

There’s nothing specifically wrong with an emotional appeal. Emotional appeals have a proper place in intelligent discourse.  But if she wanted to counter the emotional (that is - fear) based argument that wolves are dangerous, Millet would have done better than to resort to an emotional appeal of her own.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I agree with Millet that a “unified wolf-recovery plan for the nation is required,” (Millet “High Noon”), this is an important issue and needs to be addressed with serious discussion and strong legislation,  but basing that necessity on such intangible arguments like “they were here long before we were,” and a slightly non- sequitur reference to environmentalist Aldo Leopold’s transformation in response to the “fierce green fire” in a wolf’s eyes is a weak argument (Millet “High Noon”).  Instead, she could have demonstrated the very vital necessity of preserving wolf populations by describing their role as a “keystone species.”  This would have given her argument a solid grounding in scientific data – measurable, documentable, quantifiable data that cannot be easily dismissed, and would, I think, have provided and even greater emotional appeal to her writing.

Keystone species like the Grey Wolf not only “keep the wilderness wild” as Millet mentions in a brief, almost throwaway phrase (“High Noon”), they actually keep the wilderness living. Like the keystone of an arch, if a keystone species is removed, the entire structure collapses.  The complete elimination of wolves would have catastrophic effects on the entire environment. Millet could have strengthened her essay by describing how the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park has brought a new vitality to the once dying wilderness – biodiversity has increased among numerous species of flora and fauna, ecosystems have stabilized, and animal populations that were once in decline are returning.  Millet’s desire for her young daughter to have a chance to see wolf is a precious thing, not to be dismissed as irrelevant, but if the wolf disappears, her daughter might not have a chance to see many others species as well.  If the wolf disappears, the entire ecosystem with all its varied plant and animal species disappear with it.

In a 2013 TED talk George Monbiot, a writer known for his environmentalism and political work, describes how the reintroduction of wolves into the Yellowstone National Park had a cascading effect on the larger environment; even though the wolves were small in number, they had a huge effect.  As the wolves hunted deer and elk, the population of those grazing ungulates stabilized – and vegetation began to regrow in areas previously denuded.  As the vegetation – plants and trees once mowed down by uncontrolled deer and elk populations - retuned, so too came back small mammals and birds.  The beaver population of the park began to grow – which in turn brought more otters, muskrats, fish, reptiles, and assorted other animals (Monbiot “For More Wonder” 3:00).

And not only did the reintroduction of wolves into the park affect behavior and populations of animal life, the wolves actually began to change physical geography of the park.
“…here's where it gets really interesting. The wolves changed the behavior of the rivers. They began to meander less. There was less erosion. The channels narrowed. More pools formed, more riffle sections, all of which were great for wildlife habitats. The rivers changed in response to the wolves, and the reason was that the regenerating forests stabilized the banks so that they collapsed less often, so that the rivers became more fixed in their course. Similarly, by driving the deer out of some places and the vegetation recovering on the valley sides, there was less soil erosion, because the vegetation stabilized that as well. So the wolves, small in number, transformed not just the ecosystem of the Yellowstone National Park, this huge area of land, but also its physical geography” (Monbiot “For More Wonder”, 5:41).
 Millet’s essay begins well with a story about a couple of specific wolves, continues with factual data and historical information, but then fizzles out in its conclusion with an easily dismissed emotional appeal.  Even though I agree with Millet, I’m tempted to dismiss her essay as another bit of overly emotional fluff. It’s a fine essay, but the wolves are too important for vague emotional appeals.  Her argument would have been stronger – and had an even more powerful emotional impact – if she’d gone on to describe in demonstrable reasons exactly why it is so important to protect the wolf population in the United States. 

Millet, Lydia. "High Noon for the Gray Wolf." New York Times. New York Times 19 Jan. 2015. Web. 19 Jan. 2015.

Monbiot, George. “For More Wonder, Rewild the World” TEDGlobal, July 2013.

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