Lions, Tigers and Bears – Oh, My!
A story from the Coconino National Forest in Arizona
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 carnivores and our psychological need for them to be wild, fierce and free—a varmint or an icon. One gets them killed, the other immortalized, but neither will help them survive.
Neither perception tells us why lions, tigers and bears are important. A wolf takes 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 myriad lives each dependent on the other.
That we do not understand the importance of these relationships was memorably recorded by Aldo Leopold. He wrote about an experience shooting wolves one afternoon, a common practice among Forest Service rangers in 1949. Leopold watched a “fierce green fire” flicker out in a mother wolf’s eyes.
Dawning on his consciousness was the realization of a bigger death̶, a death of wild things and something greater still: the very foundation of a healthy ecosystem. The wild, beautiful landscapes that inspired Leopold were created over centuries among myriad species until a dynamic stage was reached with an elaborate set of checks and balances. The wolf Leopold killed was one of the checks in a living community.
Until that moment Leopold lacked the understanding that he later identified as something only a mountain possesses. Mountains have the long view, he wrote, whereas humans are newcomers. A mountain has no fear of wolves, only deer, because too many deer will devour vegetation and the rains will wash away soil causing all kinds of havoc on the mountain.
The rancher 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 cattle roam depends on a natural community to sustain it – a community that evolved over thousands of years.
Leopold was writing about this phenomenon in 1949. Six decades later we are still acquiring that wisdom. We witnessed an ecological rebirth in Yellowstone National Park following the return of the wolf. Riparian willows and cottonwoods returned because elk spent less time eating them and more time hiding lest it become wolf scat. Other species like beavers returned in the rebounding willows and cottonwoods and their activities created habitat for insects and birds, and so on.
Further Reflections: The Elk Problem
One summer I attended a public meeting in Arizona in the Coconino National Forest convened to address 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 hunters’ association, local residents, and curious campers like me.
It soon became apparent that a showdown was imminent.
The problem stemmed from an exponential increase in the elk population. A rancher testified that elk herds of 600 to 1,000-head could be found every morning on her land, leaving a swath of denuded range in their path . She was passionate and demanded that Game and Fish raise the limits for hunters to help bring the population of elk under control.
A rancher – tanned from a life in the sun and a silver mane pulled back in a thick pony – made her plea. She gestured toward the Apache contingent, and complained that the White Mountain Apache reservation, which bordered the national park, was serving as a nightly refuge for the elk who had discovered safety within its boundaries (1.67 million acres) of forest.
I imagined a tide of elk ebbing into the ranchland to graze by day then flowing back at night into the forested reservation. The rancher wanted the Apache Nation to help kill elk and bring the herds under control.
They would not, a tribal spokesman asserted in reply. The Apache would not do so based on ethical principles and the belief that restoring the natural ecosystem 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. “We take elk when we need meat for our people,” he said and sat down.
Tourist agencies pleaded their case for the presence of elk. Seen from the roads and campsites, thousands of families enjoyed watching wildlife. Tourism brings $16 million in revenues to Arizona each year, they reminded the crowd.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) deferred to the Arizona Game and Fish Commission which is charged with maintaining populations of wildlife. The FWS rep made a statement about the traditional range of the Mexican gray wolf—a keystone species of the disrupted ecosystem.
Sheer mention of the gray wolf acted like a match on tinder. The packed meeting room erupted in arguments from ranchers and tourism folks alike who didn’t welcome wolves in the woods.
Then a rancher with the look of one who had spent his life in the sun gained the floor. “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 saw elk and deer populations explode. Well, maybe it’s time we examine our own nature to see if maybe we can control that!”
As I walked back to my cabin at Deer Springs Inn, I considered that I’d just witnessed a complete reenactment of the opening and closing of the West with all the historical parties represented as on a stage.
The sun was setting behind the dense Ponderosa pine forest. At Deer Springs Inn, families gathered around a campfire. I happily joined my family, spearing marshmallows. Wine flowed. Stars clustered overhead. A breeze fanned the flames setting our faces aglow. An owl hooted. The fire popped and sizzled as we settled down for stories and laughter.
Back at the end of the Yellow Brick Road Dorothy got her wish to go home, the tin man a heart, and the lion, his courage. Maybe the wolf will be restored at a time when our wizardry returns us to the natural order of things.