All of the Pieces Are Important

Bruce Auchly, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks

Several decades ago, I took apart a 1973 Ford Maverick engine. For the mechanically inclined – I’m not but occasionally I qualify under a special dispensation – the engine had a blown head gasket.  After I finished putting everything back together, I had an odd piece of metal left over. It was a small Lshaped bracket, kind of like a bracket used to hold a shelf to a wall, but much, much shorter.

I think I still have it in the bottom of my tool box. It’s never good to reassemble a machine and have parts left over, though believe me when I say I’ve done it more than once. In this case, I went to a mechanic, part in hand, and asked, what the heck.

As I recall he said it fit near where the gas line entered the carburetor and was meant to prevent vapor lock. I’m sure I stared at him blankly, so he smiled and said as long as the car runs I probably didn’t need it.

I’m reminded of that story every time I go hunting in the fall and see a bird or some wee mammal I’m not hunting. As long as the engine runs, do we really need it?

Sometimes the question is what is necessary and what’s not when it comes to wildlife and the land. Maybe the better question is why choose? For every plant there is an herbivore. For every herbivore there is a carnivore. And in the end there are scavengers for all. Although some of the relationships are not so easily connected.

For example, Montana’s mixed grass prairie hosts a variety of animals, some bigger, think antelope; some smaller, think bobolink. Each species is part of the complex whole. Take away the bobolink with its yellow-hooded head, black face and bubbling, gurgling, “bobolink” call and an antelope hunter might not notice the difference but the entire prairie has been degraded.

The same holds true when a prairie is bulldozed and with it a sage grouse lek or a prairie marsh is drained and a population of plains spadefoot toad disappears. Eventually we risk vapor lock; the land mechanism seizes up, refuses to run. Or take the black-tailed prairie dog, a Great Plains native, feasting on the short grasses that grew in the dry environment. Atop the mounds next to their underground burrows, prairie dogs can see predators from afar, such as coyotes and bobcats.

So predators adapted. Raptors drop from the sky like lightning bolts. Badgers go underground. Who needs prairie dogs? Lots of parts of the prairie engine depend on the barking rodent.

Just because we don’t understand the purpose of a bird, reptile or mammal doesn’t mean it’s not important. One shouldn’t discard parts he deems unnecessary whether it’s the unknown pieces of the land mechanism or the odds and ends of a mechanic’s workshop.

Every home handyman has jars or even boxes of cogs and wheels, bits and pieces. Maybe that’s why I still have that little odd-shaped piece of metal in my tool box, though the Ford long ago went to the recyclers.

Bruce Auchly is the Information & Education Manager for Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks in Region 4.