Why America Needs More Predators

Black Wolf

There has always been a voice in the United States that has never liked predator species. In the past, this voice was so strong and powerful that they virtually eliminated all but the most elusive predators from the lower 48, excluding black bears. Once many other predators were gone by the 1930’s, black bears’ numbers began to steadily grow thanks to being spared the wrath of hatred. In addition, in the absence of large predators, even animals like coyotes, whom had only called the mountain regions of the west home, began to explore other regions of the continent. They can now can be found in just about every state across the country, just as their relative, the wolf, once had been.

In 1995, wolves became the subject of enormous controversy, and rather than subsiding once a healthier ecosystem emerged, the controversy only grew over the years that followed. Imported from areas of British Columbia and Alberta, wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park after decades of research finally convinced the park that their absence was having a disastrous effect on the ecosystem. With their reemergence came healthier aspen trees, a recovering beaver population, and their presence helped a slowly recovering grizzly bear population increase its rate. The statistic that still causes an outcry however, is that the elk population took a significant hit.

Recent generations of locals had been accustomed to seeing hundreds, and in many areas, thousands of elk, a statistic that most people didn’t realize caused more harm to the species than lower numbers. In fact historically, elk were never in the large numbers that current generations had grown accustomed to. Being the target of exponentially more grizzly bears, wolves, and mountain lions in the past, their numbers always managed to rest in much smaller values. It didn’t matter though. The outcry that came as a result of disappearing elk sparked a fight against the wolf that still goes on to this day. Despite grizzly bears being responsible for 60% of elk deaths in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, wolves still get the blame, though there is pressure to delist the grizzly bear now. Just recently, with a newly opened wolf hunt, eight collared wolves were killed near Yellowstone National Park and two killed near Grand Teton National Park, ending years and years of research. The collars were disposed of by the hunters rather than turning them back in implying a complete lack of respect for both the animals and the researchers.

The concern from the opposition is that if wolves are not managed and hunted, then elk will go extinct. This argument stems from the belief that the wolves reintroduced were genetically used to hunting caribou, so these wolves are a sort of "super wolf" that are much bigger and stronger because of their adaptation to hunting the arctic animal. Most people using that argument haven’t taken the time to learn that a caribou is actually smaller than an elk, and that the wolves brought into Yellowstone National Park primarily hunted both elk and bison. Another argument is the simple observance that elk are disappearing at a rapid rate. This was true. In fact research even suggested that many of the elk that people were noticing that had been killed by wolves, were actually killed by mountain lions and only scavenged by wolves. Regardless, elk numbers were still reduced at a rate faster than anyone had predicted. Yet now, in Wyoming, elk numbers are on the rise. This was the case even prior to wolves being opened up to hunting. Elk numbers had gone up so much, that the Wyoming Game & Fish offered extra hunting licenses for the 2012 season. This is all part of the natural ebb and flow that wolves and elk share. With too many elk, wolves will eat well and their population will increase. With too few elk, wolves will begin to die off due to lack of food and competition. With fewer wolves, the elk begin to recover once again, and on it goes. In fact, a Yellowstone National Park biologist just recently announced that wolves and elk are at an equilibrium in the park. If there were any danger to elk going extinct from wolves, it would have happened long ago when the country’s wolf population was extraordinarily higher than its current minimal presence.

In the same way hunting is a time-honored tradition of America’s past, it has become just as much of a tradition to blindly hate wolves by many people, completely ignoring facts and science and instead arguing from a personal vendetta backed only by emotion. I’ve even been told that because I support the presence of predators, which would of course include wolves, that I have been brainwashed by the federal government. This is of course the same federal government that delisted wolves from the Endangered Species List, and now wants to delist grizzly bears as well. My suspicion is that this hatred and anger stems from a fear of elk not being required to be hunted, should the wolves be allowed to roam freely. Ranchers have similar arguments about their cattle, but very few of them have taken any measures to keep out wolves or prevent their attacks. Even so, their numbers are greatly exaggerated. Hunting is said to be a way to manage wildlife numbers, yet when a species becomes overpopulated, hunting cannot keep up with the number of animals. After the elimination of wolves from the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the elk population exploded. The Jackson Hole Elk Herd alone currently runs between 5,000 and 10,000 on an average year, yet the height of their population exceeded 25,000 in the absence of predators. Hunting simply does not keep numbers down as it claims to do. Just look at the deer population in the eastern United States. People complain all the time that their are too many deer despite an enormous hunting season in those areas. The only thing that has been proven to maintain a healthy population of herd species are predators. This does not mean I want to take somebody’s right to hunt away. If someone wants to go into the wilderness and get an animal to provide them meat for the winter, then they should have every right to do so. My point is simply that hunting as a wildlife management tool has not been as effective as some would claim.

Of course hunting also does bring valuable resources into the economies of states that rely on such an activity. Without hunting, what would a state like Montana have to rely on? Well with a change in its mindset, Montana could benefit enormously more from tourism than hunting. Just ask Gerlie Weinstein of the Alpine Motel in Cooke City, Montana. Taken from an article illustrating enormous tourism benefits from predators, she notes: “My business has increased yearly, and increased from the business that the former owners did. I came here because I watch wildlife and that’s what a lot of my clients do.” In the past, when motels in the area would close up for the offseason due to lack of visitors, she’s been staying open along with many others simply so people can watch wolves. This keeps money flowing year-round through the town making it easier and easier to maintain a profitable business in a small town. It’s not all about the Yellowstone wolves either. Here in Grand Teton National Park, when Grizzly Bear #399 and her daughter #610 each emerged with new cubs of the year in 2011, word spread like wildfire not just across the country, but across oceans as well. The story broke in England as tourism soared in both Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, all because people wanted to see predators. Hunting brings in some money, certainly, but when done right, tourism to see these animals vastly outnumbers the profits available from hunting. In addition, hunting is done during a short time each year. Tourism from people that simply want to see a predator species lasts virtually the entire year, and people come in much larger quantities to see them, unless of course you’re running a state facing an economic boycott for embracing wolf hunting. That of course might slow down one of the most proven treasure chests of economics.

Historically, wolves were found in nearly every state in the United States and grizzly bears roamed from Missouri to California, and from Canada to northern Mexico. It’s no wonder there are so many issues with animals in places where natural predators are missing. In Yosemite National Park, black bears have become an annoyance to regular visitors due to their persistence of breaking into cars for food. The numbers have skyrocketed and the only solution they have found to the problem is to euthanize the bears. If they were to reintroduce the grizzly bear to the Sierra Nevada Mountains, however, the grizzlies would begin to reign supreme in those areas and the black bear numbers would begin to fall, as well as keeping them at bay. Likewise, the now extinct prairie grizzly bear surely would have kept prairie dog numbers down, in addition to other animals, a common complaint from people in the midwest. Coyotes also never had a need to move away from the mountain regions of the west. Yet after the disappearance of wolves, coyotes can now be found from one coast to the other. It’s interesting to note that in the absence of wolves, the role of a coyote changes from scavenger to predator, proving that nature almost insists on having some kind of predator around. You now hear all the time about coyotes in neighborhoods wreaking havoc. Hunting them won’t stop them from breeding and continuing to try and survive just like any animal would. The only real solution is to reintroduce more wolves into more areas to keep coyotes at bay. The solution to problem black bears is to reintroduce more grizzlies. The solution to excessive deer populations in the eastern U.S. is to reintroduce mountain lions and red wolves to thin the herds much more efficiently and to control the invasive coyote population. Together these top three predators make up a triad of predator species that will not only keep prey species down to a healthy number, but also each other.

The solutions are extraordinarily simple, yet there’s a small and albeit dwindling population that still maintains a loud voice, especially in politics, that simply refuses to educate themselves on how to live with predators, thus corrupting any efforts to push the balance back into nature’s favor. Their answer is to just kill anything they don’t like, which translates directly into simple cowardice and an almost enjoyment in ignorance, fear, and hatred. It’s an outdated and barbaric behavior that does nothing but hold back important progress in reestablishing a healthy ecosystem across this country. The only solution to overpopulated herd animals and problem animals is to introduce more predators into more areas. It’s not enough for two-three national parks in the lower 48 to have a microcosm of a balanced ecosystem. This could be a reality from coast to coast, and the only thing blocking this reality is a small bit of education from a small group of powerful people. Is it really worth all the anger, stress, and struggle?

This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. Mike, thanks for another great post about this issue.

    Couple of thoughts to add…

    Additional support for restoration of predators is restoration of an ecosystem’s general health. The improvements to Yellowstone’s riparian zones, the restoration of beaver populations, and the resurgence of other species that depend on on this micro-zone, has been well documented. It’s one of the most beautiful examples I know of for the impact that keystone predators have on an ecosystem.

    Regarding eastern deer populations…I grew up outside of Philadelphia, near Valley Forge NP. I have strong memories of of seeing huge deer herds in the park — upwards of 100 animals in a single herd. Natural herd size is closer to 10.

    One reason for these sizes has to do with how the DOW issues hunting tags. Tags typically are gender-specific, and there skewed towards bucks. The balance within deer populations skewed  female, as a result. Fewer males means less competition during the rut, in turn helping create big herds (and lower genetic diversity).

    None of this is to say that lack of predators isn’t a contributor. No argument from me about this.

    Before moving to the PNW, I lived in Colorado (for 13 years), which holds the largest elk population in the lower US (or did while I called it home). The revenue derived from hunting there is staggering.

    I can still recall my first elk season there, experienced in Steamboat Springs. That tiny little town turned into a giant shitshow overnight. Hundreds if not thousands of people descended upon the area. Trucks, rv’s, trailers, snowmobiles, four-wheelers, livestock, rifles, outfitters. It was as incredible as it as disturbing.

    All those people who came from out of state (Wyoming, Kansas, Utah, even New Mexico, are all easy trips) paid for out-of-state elk tags that are expensive. Even more revenue comes from turkey, sheep and goat, waterfowl, and mountain lion. 

    It’s clear and unfortunate that wildlife management practices are employed with state hunting revenue as an objective. I saw it in PA, I see it here in Oregon. I firmly advocate that this is wrong, that as responsible stewards our objective must be the restoration of ecosystems, but acknowledge that creating change is an incredible challenge, too.

    1. Excellent points, Wesley. You brought up a number of things I wished I could have touched on, but this would have been a 5-part post at least had I touched upon everything that it encompasses. But you’re absolutely right about the economic benefits of hunting. I don’t argue that they bring in significant revenue, but I wonder if creating new protected lands would help create more year-round jobs and thriving economic communities rather than just one short seasonal window. Last year a group of economists urged Obama to create more parks for just that reason because their findings discovered that communities near national parks and protected areas were doing extremely well: http://www.nationalparkstraveler.com/2011/11/updated-economists-academics-urge-president-obama-protect-public-lands-create-new-national-parks9099

      In terms of the deer, we have a similar issue here in Wyoming with the elk. The elk go winter on elk feedgrounds where they’re fed grass and alfalfa pellets all winter, before dispersing into the parks for the summer. Then in the fall, as they begin to make their way back into the feedgrounds/refuges, hunters are placed directly in their migration path.

      One of the main points that I was hoping to accomplish in making this post was that there is a gold mine of untapped revenue waiting to be brought in to communities across the country through protection of prey and predator species alike rather than a short window on issuing hunting tags. I certainly don’t argue against hunting. I understand it’s a very cherished tradition and one that many people enjoy engaging in, but I think some areas are better suited than others, and I also don’t believe it’s as effective as a wildlife “management” tool as Fish & Game, among others, claims it to be. By protecting more lands, that has the potential to bring in significantly more dollars than what the hunting permits would bring in. Many people look to protected areas to plan vacations around no matter the season, so having more along the way from one point to another can only help out certain areas, especially if there’s a balanced ecosystem in that area.

      Like I said, great points! Thank you for bringing them up and also for the comment!

      1. Mike, that’s really true, you’d approach novella length before hitting on all of the relevant points. Please go for it!

        Re: Fish & Game, I’ve occasionally met field biologists from the department who were cognizant of the issues created by current management practices. One on one, I think we held similar opinions about these practices. Overall, I think the department is a travesty.

        And, to your point about communities, I’ve also had occasion to talk to residents of ones like those you describe. Though my sample size is really small, I was surprised to hear a similar opinion of these practices. I expected that the ability to hunt would be a priority. Instead, I found a deep appreciation for the place they called home, and a desire for better wildlife management.

        All of this to say, I agree, there are other ways. Incidentally, I caught that article you referenced when it came out. I know a lot of orgs are trying to keep pressure on the White House over these issues. I hope they continue to do so.

        1. Absolutely. And I certainly don’t argue that ranchers and hunters don’t love the land that they own and hunt on, but there seems to be a source of misinformation that produces the mentality that the world is better off without predators. The Arapaho Ranch in north-central Wyoming is an excellent example of a ranch that has made small and simple adjustments to welcome every native species on their land with their cattle, including wolves and bears, and they report nothing but a healthy environment on their land with all kinds of animals to take pleasure in observing.

  2. Mike, thanks for another great post about this issue.

    Couple of thoughts to add…

    Additional support for restoration of predators is restoration of an ecosystem’s general health. The improvements to Yellowstone’s riparian zones, the restoration of beaver populations, and the resurgence of other species that depend on on this micro-zone, has been well documented. It’s one of the most beautiful examples I know of for the impact that keystone predators have on an ecosystem.

    Regarding eastern deer populations…I grew up outside of Philadelphia, near Valley Forge NP. I have strong memories of of seeing huge deer herds in the park — upwards of 100 animals in a single herd. Natural herd size is closer to 10.

    One reason for these sizes has to do with how the DOW issues hunting tags. Tags typically are gender-specific, and there skewed towards bucks. The balance within deer populations skewed  female, as a result. Fewer males means less competition during the rut, in turn helping create big herds (and lower genetic diversity).

    None of this is to say that lack of predators isn’t a contributor. No argument from me about this.

    Before moving to the PNW, I lived in Colorado (for 13 years), which holds the largest elk population in the lower US (or did while I called it home). The revenue derived from hunting there is staggering.

    I can still recall my first elk season there, experienced in Steamboat Springs. That tiny little town turned into a giant shitshow overnight. Hundreds if not thousands of people descended upon the area. Trucks, rv’s, trailers, snowmobiles, four-wheelers, livestock, rifles, outfitters. It was as incredible as it as disturbing.

    All those people who came from out of state (Wyoming, Kansas, Utah, even New Mexico, are all easy trips) paid for out-of-state elk tags that are expensive. Even more revenue comes from turkey, sheep and goat, waterfowl, and mountain lion. 

    It’s clear and unfortunate that wildlife management practices are employed with state hunting revenue as an objective. I saw it in PA, I see it here in Oregon. I firmly advocate that this is wrong, that as responsible stewards our objective must be the restoration of ecosystems, but acknowledge that creating change is an incredible challenge, too.

    1. Excellent points, Wesley. You brought up a number of things I wished I could have touched on, but this would have been a 5-part post at least had I touched upon everything that it encompasses. But you’re absolutely right about the economic benefits of hunting. I don’t argue that they bring in significant revenue, but I wonder if creating new protected lands would help create more year-round jobs and thriving economic communities rather than just one short seasonal window. Last year a group of economists urged Obama to create more parks for just that reason because their findings discovered that communities near national parks and protected areas were doing extremely well: http://www.nationalparkstraveler.com/2011/11/updated-economists-academics-urge-president-obama-protect-public-lands-create-new-national-parks9099

      In terms of the deer, we have a similar issue here in Wyoming with the elk. The elk go winter on elk feedgrounds where they’re fed grass and alfalfa pellets all winter, before dispersing into the parks for the summer. Then in the fall, as they begin to make their way back into the feedgrounds/refuges, hunters are placed directly in their migration path.

      One of the main points that I was hoping to accomplish in making this post was that there is a gold mine of untapped revenue waiting to be brought in to communities across the country through protection of prey and predator species alike rather than a short window on issuing hunting tags. I certainly don’t argue against hunting. I understand it’s a very cherished tradition and one that many people enjoy engaging in, but I think some areas are better suited than others, and I also don’t believe it’s as effective as a wildlife “management” tool as Fish & Game, among others, claims it to be. By protecting more lands, that has the potential to bring in significantly more dollars than what the hunting permits would bring in. Many people look to protected areas to plan vacations around no matter the season, so having more along the way from one point to another can only help out certain areas, especially if there’s a balanced ecosystem in that area.

      Like I said, great points! Thank you for bringing them up and also for the comment!

      1. Mike, that’s really true, you’d approach novella length before hitting on all of the relevant points. Please go for it!

        Re: Fish & Game, I’ve occasionally met field biologists from the department who were cognizant of the issues created by current management practices. One on one, I think we held similar opinions about these practices. Overall, I think the department is a travesty.

        And, to your point about communities, I’ve also had occasion to talk to residents of ones like those you describe. Though my sample size is really small, I was surprised to hear a similar opinion of these practices. I expected that the ability to hunt would be a priority. Instead, I found a deep appreciation for the place they called home, and a desire for better wildlife management.

        All of this to say, I agree, there are other ways. Incidentally, I caught that article you referenced when it came out. I know a lot of orgs are trying to keep pressure on the White House over these issues. I hope they continue to do so.

        1. Absolutely. And I certainly don’t argue that ranchers and hunters don’t love the land that they own and hunt on, but there seems to be a source of misinformation that produces the mentality that the world is better off without predators. The Arapaho Ranch in north-central Wyoming is an excellent example of a ranch that has made small and simple adjustments to welcome every native species on their land with their cattle, including wolves and bears, and they report nothing but a healthy environment on their land with all kinds of animals to take pleasure in observing.

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