Wolves, Cougars, and Rivers

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Our great predators teach us about the vital importance of energy flow in Nature

“We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes–something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”

“…I have lived to see state after state extirpate its wolves. I have watched the face of many a newly wolfless mountain, and seen the south-facing slopes wrinkle with a maze of new deer trails. I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anemic desuetude, and then to death. I have seen every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddlehorn. Such a mountain looks as if someone had given God a new pruning shears, and forbidden Him all other exercise. In the end the starved bones of the hoped-for deer herd, dead of its own too-much, bleach with the bones of the dead sage, or molder under the high-lined junipers.” 

Aldo Leopold — A Sand County Almanac

Our great predators, the wolf, the cougar, the bear, and others teach us about the vital importance of connections in Nature. They are top predators because the power of their connecting presence is an evolutionary driver of the diversity of life. Chains of life flourish with the force of predation. The absence of predators results in broken connections that make a big difference in how Nature operates.

The conservationist’s toolkit must contain the ability to identify and preserve vital connections in Nature.

We humans are just beginning to realize that keystone predators are a major connecting force in the functioning of ecosystems. Yet, agricultural interests and Nature’s stewards in our public lands kill off the major predators because they are inconvenient or considered dangerous to humanity. It is a paradox that the great predators are a key to life itself. They affect the life and health of entire ecosystems.

I recently found a wonderful video that provides a lot of detail and scientific data that supports the restoration of predators such as the wolf and the cougar. Lords of Nature is a video that portrays the ecological damage caused by the breaking of natural connections when  these predators are killed off. It beautifully demonstrates how everything is interconnected in Nature. And it offers solutions for humanity’s healthy coexistence with these animals. This video is almost an hour long but it is well worth your time because it lays out the scientific evidence and reasoning for the preservation of the great predators like the wolf and the cougar. It also gives examples of successful coexistence between agricultural interests and predators.

PredatorCougarMuch of the conflict within the current government sponsored delisting of endangered wolf species results from human emotion and misunderstanding. On one side, some ranchers angrily view predators as thieves who destroy ones economic welfare. On the other side, the pro-wolf community portrays wolves and other predators as romantic, warm, and fuzzy creatures worth loving. Both sides harbor major misconceptions.

The video shows proof with examples that wolf predation of livestock can be reduced to near-zero levels through various non-lethal methods. The movie also suggests that much of the resistance by the ranching community is in the Western United States where fear seems to prevail over reason. Unlike the fear of ranchers in the Western United States, there are large wolf populations in Minnesota and little predation of livestock because these ranchers have learned to employ effective non-lethal methods to protect their livestock. The video portrays interviews with Minnesota ranchers who have successfully used non-lethal methods for stopping wolf predation. The results are impressive. USDA data from the Northern Rocky Mountains show that wolves were responsible for only 1% of all livestock losses while losses due to disease (81%), bad weather (16%), and domestic dogs (2%) were far higher.

The video also notes that the pro-predator community has an Predator-1914equally erroneous perception – that of being “warm and fuzzy”. The fact is that predators are indeed hard to live with, and need our special attention to create a peaceful coexistence!


The health of the land depends upon predators and man and beast can coexist to maintain that health.

The science behind the issues associated with the great predators clearly defines how parts of  ecosystems have been damaged or destroyed because predators like the wolf have been hunted to near extinction.  The video focuses on data and observations at Yellowstone National Park and Zion National Park.

Predator-8290At Yellowstone and other places, starting early in the 20th century, the wolf was being exterminated.  There was a war on any animal that was deemed a threat to livestock. Ranchers saw fit to clean their rangelands of all threats. By late 1920, the science of ecology (the study of Nature’s vital connections) began to emerge. By 1940, Aldo Leopold was defending the wolf and suggesting that conservation of the land for self-renewal should be the key idea for increasing the capacity of the land. His famous words, quoted above, about the “green fire” in the wolf’s eyes appeared in his San County Almanac. Leopold’s ideas were deeply holistic and included the welfare of soil, water, plants, and animals along with our human communities. The role of how predators associated with their prey became a key theme in his whole idea of the conservation of the health of the land. As a result, he started a bitter dispute with those who wanted the wolf exterminated.

In 1973 the Endangered Species Act was enacted and in 1995, new wolves were released into Idaho and Yellowstone National Park. Since then, researchers have gathered ecological data in Yellowstone and other national parks on the roles of predators in ecosystems. At Yellowstone, it was found that the ecosystem had changed significantly with too many deer and elk that resulted from a lack of top predators. Aspen, cottonwood, and willow trees that grew along streams were stunted or destroyed by the foraging elk. In turn, the lack of strong stream side plants caused erosion. The forests moved away from the streams resulting in changed ecosystems. The aquatic life in and near the streams was affected. This included beaver, fish, frogs, insects, and bird life.


With the reintroduction of the wolf, a restoration of the former ecosystems began.

Predator-8619 The banquet provided by the wolf feeding on elk and deer was available to any other scavenger creatures from vultures to beetles. The stunted aspen, cottonwood, and willow trees began to grow again. Stream sites began to flourish. With the demise of the wolf, the beaver colonies had died off with only one left. The reintroduction of the wolf ultimately resulted in 12 beaver colonies. The Pronghorn Antelope population, a prey to coyotes, increased as the wolf preyed on coyotes again. The video describes all of this as a healing of a 70 year sickness. Indeed, many connections in Nature had been restored with the reconnection of the keystone predator to his ecosystem. As Aldo Leopold had predicted, these studies have shown that the wolf is an important part of a fully functioning ecosystem 

While ecological restoration was taking place at Yellowstone, deer were amassing in destructive numbers at Zion National Park. There were no wolves at Zion but there were many cougars. Strangely, the act of naming Zion as a national park ended up damaging the ecosystem. But, instead of purposeful eradication, the cougar quietly moved away from the hordes of humanity who came to visit Zion Canyon. Like Yellowstone, the stream side plant community was severely affected because of an overrun of deer. The key predator, the cougar, had moved on. But, researchers did find an opportunity to discover why all this was happening. The cougar moved to a secluded area near Zion Canyon known as North Creek. Here the scientists found a richness of life. There are 47 times more cottonwood trees, 5 times as many butterflies, and 200 times more toads and frogs. The key predator, the cougar, is keeping the deer population in check. Consequently, an ecological balance exists.

From all of this, researchers have found similar results in other places such as Jasper Provincial Park in Alberta, Canada; Olympic National Park in Washington; and Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota. The ecosystems in all of these locations were destined to decay without their top predators. Each is a living example of Aldo Leopold’s concerns some 60 years ago.

Top predators provide richer, more resilient ecosystems throughout the world.

There is scientific proof. And with this, human fear of loss has proven to be unfounded.   

The take home message portrayed by this video is that Nature is strongly interconnected. Because of these interdependencies, when we humans mess around with our top predators, we do adversely affect Nature’s environment

Worth Your Extra Attention :

Here are some useful Internet links regarding great predators.

Scientific articles from the Lords of Nature web site


Bear predation

Cougar Predation

Please Note:

The cougar picture is from:  http://true-wildlife.blogspot.com. The wolf pictures are from : http://www.mexicanwolves.org . The rest of the images were captured by me.

Why Do I Write These Essays?

Nothing in Nature exists in isolation. The movement of life’s energy, which originates in the sun, takes place because everything is interconnected and interdependent. Your consciousness of interdependence in Nature means that, every time you engage Nature, you ask yourself how a creature, a plant, yourself, or a natural object is connected to another and to Nature’s greater scheme of things. With this awareness you are prepared to protect Nature’s environment that sustains you. And, you create your legacy by encouraging others to do likewise.


If, after reading my essays, you find yourself embracing these ideas, I am thrilled in knowing that I’ve played some small part in setting this world view in motion in your mind.


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My name is Bill Graham. As a Marine Biologist who has worked in the US and Mexico for 30 years, I am a student of Nature, a teacher, a researcher, and a nature photographer. Through my work, I have acquired an ever growing passion for how everything in Nature is connected. Today, I travel extensively contemplating about, writing about, and photographing Nature’s connections. I also work with conservation projects in the USA and Mexico and mentor talented youth.

15 thoughts on “Wolves, Cougars, and Rivers”

  1. Nicely written article Bill and well considered. This is all about joined up thinking over the long term, rather than the usual “How do wolves effect me”. I congratulate you and I will do my best to distribute your wonderful article.

    1. Thanks Paul: While I live in Mexico, I do spend time in Southeastern Arizona where the fear about wolf predation runs wild with the ranchers. Ranching and agriculture are a very strong political force. These guys seem to run around without any facts and seem to control the USDA and other government conservation bodies. I am very pleased to see the Lords of Nature video produced where a well balanced approach is offered. We need to end the senseless politics and public meetings where ranchers and environmentalists scream at each other. The amazing thing is that there is a good solution that benefits BOTH mankind and Nature.

    2. It is always a wonder to me that we keep forgetting what we have known. My uncle, Paul Friday, was a Forest Ranger near McCloud, CA all his adult life. He understood very well what you have published above…and he understood it in the 50’s.
      This time our reinventing knowledge may be too late. Also I understand sarcoptic mange and Parvo may be decimating or vastly reducing wolf populations in our mountain states. Between ignorance and disease, I am not overly optimistic.
      Nemaste, gwenie

  2. Introduced species often lack effective predators. This aids in their increase and competition with natives. Species such as wild horses and burros have spread in the arid west and together with domestic livestock, have contributed to the decline of native antelope and deer.

    1. Thanks for your comment Gary. Can you please offer us some research cites to support your comments? While I have no reason to doubt you, I’d love to know more about the why and the how.

  3. Wonderful article, Bill. Lots of great information and even more support on nonlethal methods of sustaining our keystone predators. Outstanding!!! I watched the movie and it was everything you mentioned and more. I hope more will watch it. It’s powerful. I also really thought that opening with that quote from Leopold really set up well what you had to say in your blog.
    Gwenie was right about the fact that our species does not learn very well. We keep meddling in Nature and we keep getting the same message back from her each time. How many times will it take? …and at what cost?

  4. Hi Bill ,
    I enjoyed reading your very informative article on Wolves. It gives reasons why we should not play being above Mother Nature or God.
    I am sick and tired of people pandering to the murderers of mother natures children calling themselves farmers or ranchers. They are Mother Natures enemies and their own worst enemies. It is time decent people stood up to them and closed the abattoirs down, and got rid of all the politicians that are in the pockets of these ranchers (murderers)and or that have vested interests in the slaughter of mother natures beautiful children.
    It is these people that are selling their own children’s environment and healthy future on this unique planet of ours.

    1. Thanks for your kind words and your comments, George. In my view, much of the blame lies with those government agencies who claim to be our stewards of Nature. Like yourself, I believe they are strongly biased toward the agricultural community instead of looking at the scientific facts and doing their job. I’ve noted in earlier posts the horrible record of the USDA Wildlife Services as an example.

    1. Thanks Ray:

      I’m hoping that more facts like those portrayed in this post can be brought to the attention of our stewards of Nature. Through public forum and education, the mindsets and the world view of government agencies needs to be changed. As I said in the previous comment, these people are way too biased toward the fiercely emotional cattle/sheep industry. The video does sow, however, that this attitude is regional. A much more balanced view seems to prevail with government agencies who are in the midwestern USA.

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