Lions, Tigers and Bears – Oh, My!

Why we need top carnivores

When Dorothy set off to find the Wizard of Oz, she and her companions encountered a lion in the dark wood – just as they had feared. But, the cowardly beast only drew their disdain for what good is a spineless lion?

Therein lies the dichotomy between our visceral fear of large carnivores and our psychological need for lions, tigers and bears to be wild, fierce and free – a ‘varmit’ or an icon. One gets them killed, the other immortalized. And, neither will help them survive.

Neither perception tells us why lions, tigers and bears are important. Remove the carnivore and prey populations multiply exponentially. Grazers mow down vegetation, producing more young and increasing in number until food sources are used up. Disease and starvation then finish them off.

A wolf pack takes out the weakest of the herd, controlling not only numbers but removing the least adaptive genes from the population’s gene pool. A dynamic balance results between wolves, deer, and vegetation, and countless lives dependent on them benefit, too.

That we do not understand the importance of this relationship was memorably recorded by Aldo Leopold. He wrote about an experience shooting wolves one afternoon – a common practice among Forest Service rangers then – wolves were vermin that needed eradicating. Leopold had watched the “fierce, green fire” in the wolf eyes fade in her death.

Dawning on his consciousness was the realization of a bigger death, a death of wild things and something greater still: the very foundation of a healthy ecosystem. The wild, beautiful landscapes that inspired Leopold, that support man’s livelihood, were created over centuries among myriad species until the climatic stage in a community was reached and wherein dynamic balance of populations is achieved by an elaborate set of checks and balances.

The wolf he had just killed was one of the key checks and balances where it lived.

Until that moment Leopold lacked the understanding that he later reflected only a mountain could possess. Mountains have the long view, he wrote, whereas humans are newcomers. A mountain has no fear of wolves … only deer – because the deer will mow down its trees and the rains will wash away its topsoil and cause all kinds of havoc on the mountain.

Thinking like a mountain requires that we look down the long road behind us and way ahead to understand the present truth.

The cattleman who compares the life of a wolf against the current market price of his cow misses the much greater value of leaving the wolf wild and free. That “home on the range” where his cattle roam depends on a well functioning natural community to maintain it.

Leopold was writing about this phenomenon in 1949. One would hope that nearly six decades later, we would be a wiser country, wiser for the scientific data that supports the wisdom Leopold gained through patient observation.  We know, for example, that the return of large carnivores to their native habitat can lead to an increase in plant and animal diversity and ecosystem complexity:

“Their removal can unleash a cascade of effects and changes throughout all ecosystem trophic [feeding] levels reducing biological diversity, simplifying ecosystem structure and function, and interfering with ecological processes.  Their return to impoverished ecosystems can reverse the cascade and restore diversity and complexity to ecosystems.

We are witnessing such ecological rebirth in Yellowstone National Park following the return of the wolf to that ecosystem.  Riparian willows and cottonwoods are returning because elk spend more time moving and hiding to avoid becoming wolf scat.  With their table reset, beavers are returning to the streams.

These ‘ecological engineers’ provide homes for myriad critters from aquatic insects to fish to songbirds.  The extent of changes is certainly far more complex than we can observe or document.”   [Dave Parsons, Conservation Biologist, The Rewilding Institute’s Carnivore Program[1]]

Yet even with our increased knowledge wolves are still exterminated as happened in Alaska. The governor of the state supported an illegal aerial hunt on 14 denning adult wolves followed by the point blank murder of fourteen pups. The justification given was to boost caribou populations in Southwest Alaska. Short term solutions will eventually deliver the opposite result if conservation biology is correct.

Ironically, Alaskan wildlife agency personnel were the arbiters of the killings. Over the sixty years since Aldo Leopold’s epiphany, a lot of good science has been conducted, laws put in place as safeguards of keystone species—a species that influences the ecological composition, structure, or functioning of its community far more than its abundance would suggest[2]  In other words, lions, tigers, and bears…

In 1996 I attended a public meeting in Springerville, Arizona convened over the “elk problem.” Present were the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Arizona Game and Fish Commission, White Mountain Apache biologists and tribal officials, ranchers, tourist industry reps, a hunter’s association, residents and students. It became apparent right from the start that a classic show down between conflicting interests was about to happen, and a full airing of our dichotomous American character.

The problem appeared to stem from an exponential increase in elk populations. A ranch owner testified how elk herds of 600 to 1,000 head could be found in her valleys and meadows on just about any given day, leaving in their path a swath of denuded range. She demanded that Game and Fish raise the limits for hunters to help bring the population under control. As she made her plea she turned to the Apache contingent. For they did not kill elk unless they needed meat and entertained the elk herds’ presence within the boundaries of their reservations at night when the animals sought refuse there. The vast reservation stretches as far south as Phoenix encompassing 1.67 million acres. The rancher wanted the Apache Nation to help kill elk and bring the herds under control. They would not, they said, based on ethical principles and the belief that restoring the natural systems would be the only true answer to controlling the population. (I think I caught a twinkle in one tribal elder’s eye as this statement was made.)

Tourist agencies pleaded that the presence of elk, seen from the freeways and in the camp or motel areas, drew thousands of families who enjoy seeing wildlife. Tourism brings millions of dollars in revenue to the community they reminded the assembly.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service deferred to the Arizona Game and Fish Commission. But first they made a statement about the traditional range of the Mexican gray wolf, a natural keystone species of the disrupted ecosystem. Reintroduction of the gray wolf in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest and southern Arizona’s Gila River communities was just getting underway.

Mention of the wolf acted like a match on tinder. The auditorium erupted in arguments from the ranchers and tourism folks alike who didn’t welcome wolves in the woods.

Then, a rancher rose to speak. He had the look of one who spends his days in the sun.

“We are victims of our own schemes – me included. First we saw the wolf as our enemy and we systematically exterminated it. We saw it killing too many elk, too many cattle. We feared for our own lives. Once it was gone we began to notice how the elk and deer populations grew each year. Now we watch as they eat the meadows down, even strip the bark. Well, maybe its time we examined our own nature to see how we can control that!”

Back at the end of the Yellow Brick Road, Dorothy got her wish to go home, the tin man a heart, and the lion, courage. Maybe the wolf, the lion, the tiger, the bear, the shark, the grizzly will be restored, too, at some time when our own wizardry returns us to the natural order of things.

2 thoughts on “Lions, Tigers and Bears – Oh, My!

  1. Carole

    Beautifully said. Have you read Never Cry Wolf by Farley Mowat (much better than the movie) and Where the Wild Things Were: Life, Death, and Ecological Wreckage in a Land of Vanishing Predators? Both highly recommended.

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