Nature’s Relationships : Predator and Prey
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Our great predators, the wolf, the cougar, the bear, and others teach us about the vital importance of interdependence 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 killing of predators by mankind results in broken energy connections that make a big difference in how Nature operates.

The conservationist’s toolkit must contain the ability to identify and preserve vital energy connections in Nature. Wikipedia defines keystone predators as species which have a disproportionately large effect on their natural environment relative to their abundance. We humans are just beginning to realize that keystone predators are a major connecting force in the functioning of ecosystems. It is a paradox that the great predators are a key to life itself. They affect the life and health of entire 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.

There is 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 powerful 58 minute video that portrays the ecological damage caused by the breaking of natural connections when these predators are killed off. Narrated by Peter Coyote, the video beautifully demonstrates how everything is interconnected in Nature. And it offers solutions for humanity’s healthy coexistence with these animals. This video 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.

Much 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. 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 equally 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 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. At 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 energy 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. He is famous for his words in his San County Almanac about the “green fire” in the eyes of a dying wolf . 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, with the demise of the wolf prior to 1973, 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, and with it the predation of elk and deer, a restoration of the former ecosystems began. 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 created by mankind. Indeed, many connections in Nature had been restored with the reconnection of the keystone predator to his ecosystem. 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.

For Your Further Consideration

This essay, and other essays in this web site, present ideas to environmental educators and all stewards of Nature about ecoliteracy and legacy.   The emphasis is on two key ideas:

  • Our earth is a living system that transports and transforms energy. The key to an active ecoliteracy that results in a healthy environment for all life on earth is the building of a systems view of life into the minds and hearts of humanity, This worldview includes the fact that all of Nature is interconnected and interdependent.
  • Environmental education is not simply offering facts. Environmental education must be hands-on and place-based if ideas, facts, and effective conservation strategies are to become a consciousness in the minds and hearts of our youth. Environmental education must include the the passing of this consciousness to future generation.

Please Comment

The purpose of this web site is to build a dialog between myself and my readers. I invite you to offer your comments, your critique, and to share your ideas with all of my readers in the comment space provided below.

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.

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