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Introducing: [Un]Natural Selection

Erin O'Malley
Peers & Friends
[Un]Natural Selection - a special season of Points North.

Humans have shaped and manipulated the natural world like no other species on earth. Those alterations have helped the planet, hurt it and everything in between. But we’re slow to realize, often taking decades to figure out our impact.

Today, environmental agencies across the country spend much of their time and money responding to problems past generations have created and trying to foresee future challenges. We introduce foreign insects to control other foreign insects that are devastating plant life. We try to stop erosion on the Great Lakes, but our short-term fixes make long-term problems. We nearly killed off gray wolves and now consider hunting them again after the population has grown. We alter harvesting limits for deer, sturgeon, bear and moose. We manipulate fish genomes to “improve” them.

How do we know we’re fixing nature’s problems, not creating more?

In [Un]Natural Selection, a new season of Points North, we’ll examine our role as part of the ecosystem and explore the ethical line between mending our natural world and meddling with it.

About Points North:

Points North is a weekly show on Interlochen Public Radio about the evolving land, water and inhabitants of the Upper Great Lakes.

Episodes by release date:

Episode 1: A Necessary Weevil?
Ecologists were hopeful. They’d found an exotic weevil to beat back invasive thistles that were invading farm pastures and prairies. The problem was, the little beetle didn’t exactly do its job. The weevils were jeopardizing the pitcher’s thistle, a federally threatened species. In the Great Lakes dunes, more species of pollinators rely on this rare native thistle than any other plant. So now scientists are working to right their wrongs.

Episode 2: Houses Built On Sand
When the Great Lakes swelled to record levels in 2019-2020, shoreline residents panicked. As houses sat precariously close to the water’s edge, thousands of folks applied for construction permits to “harden up”. Permanent seawalls and rock revetments were built to stabilize eroding shorelines and protect millions of dollars worth of property owners’ assets. But there’s a long-term impact to armoring the shoreline, and as it turns out, it actually exacerbates the erosion it’s meant to stop.

Episode 3: What To Do With The 'Big Bad Wolf'
The recovery of gray wolves from near extinction is an environmental success story. But wolf biologist Brian Roell says many people don’t see it that way. That’s because wolves are shrouded in controversy. Environmental groups consistently refute scientific evidence of population stability in the Great Lakes and fight to return wolves to the endangered species list. At odds with them are farmers and politicians with “little red riding hood syndrome.” They say the big bad wolf needs to be killed to protect livestock and deer, despite little evidence to support that either. The battle lines are hardened when a recreational wolf hunt is considered.

Episode 4: 'Forest Of The Living Dead'
When Steve Yancho arrived at North Manitou Island he saw deer carcasses loaded into abandoned buildings and cars. He was witnessing the aftermath of a die off – something that had happened cyclically on the island since the deer population got out of control. North Manitou is like a petri dish. It shows what happens when the deer numbers exceed food supply, and all the young plants and greenery are eaten to a nub. It’s a cautionary tale illustrating why deer management is so important.

Episode 5: Rekindling Wilderness
Most people think of the wilderness as a place untouched by humans. But that’s far from the truth. Evidence stored in tree rings in the Minnesota Boundary Waters affirms an oral history of Indigenous land management through controlled burns. Those intentional fires created one of the Great Lakes’ most popular wilderness destinations. It’s a place where red pines grow straight and tall and sunlight reaches the forest floor. Then blueberries thrive and many species – including humans – feed on them.

Episode 6: Damned If We Do, Damned If We Don't
From the late 1800s and the 1940s, we built many dams across the U.S. – some for hydroelectric power, others to form lakes. But by the late 1900s, freshwater ecologists started raising the alarm. These dams were fragmenting ecosystems and cutting off fish from their spawning grounds. The scientists' campaign worked. Since then, many dams have been removed in favor of healthier waterways. But then problem number two arose. After waterways started flowing freely, invasive species now had a clear path into new networks of rivers and streams. A fish pass is being touted as the new perfect solution. Part dam, part free flowing waterway, fish would be sorted at the pass, letting the desirable ones through and blocking invasives.

Episode 7: Frankenfish
Lake trout are on life support in Lake Michigan. They rely on intense breeding and stocking by federal fisheries. There was a breakthrough last summer, though, that could help bolster the lake trout’s recovery. A geneticist successfully mapped the lake trout genome: an outline of the fish’s genetic makeup. The genome will help biologists understand why some “strains” of trout have a higher survival rate. But could it also be used to create a “supertrout”? The biotech company AquaBounty did it with salmon. In 2015, this frankenfish became the first genetically modified animal approved for use in the food industry.

Hosts & Executive Producers: Dan Wanschura, Morgan Springer
Lead Producer: Patrick Shea
Lead Editor: Morgan Springer
Consulting Editor: Peter Payette
Logo: Erin O’Malley

Dan Wanschura is the Host and Executive Producer of Points North.
Morgan Springer is a contributing editor and producer at Interlochen Public Radio. She previously worked for the New England News Collaborative as the host/producer of NEXT, the weekly show which aired on six public radio station in the region.
Patrick Shea was a natural resources reporter at Interlochen Public Radio. Before joining IPR, he worked a variety of jobs in conservation, forestry, prescribed fire and trail work. He earned a degree in natural resources from Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin, and his interest in reporting grew as he studied environmental journalism at the University of Montana's graduate school.