The Value of a Predator
I have spent a good deal of my adult life working hard for wolves. In them I see a connection to many other things, and I’m a “big picture” kind of person. Wolves are a beautiful example of connectedness. Wolves also represent to many a picture of wildness. If wolves are somewhere, than we can be assured there is a wild place there too. And to many, wolves represent fear.
It is this fear that generates a lot of discussion. Wolves—and here let me clarify that I am referring to the Gray Wolf, or Timber Wolf, found in northern to middle North America today—are a really divisive subject in many parts of our country. In our recent historic past, we as a collective people have thought that pretty much the only good wolf was a dead wolf. This view still prevails today in some places.
Today however, we also have the benefit of decades of scientific research that helps us redefine that view; and the view of predators in general. Scientists in mammalian biology had suspected for a while that there were indeed benefits to having predators as part of a habitat, and today we can say with confidence that this is most definitely true.
Predators are hunters. Think of not only wolves, but mountain lions, hawks, eagles, some whales. It is tough to watch a predator take down its dinner. It’s bloody, and wrenching to watch the end of one animal’s life to support that of another. When a predator kills our livestock, or our pets, it seems like a personal and unforgivable act. But it is not personal. A predator has to work very hard to catch even one small meal. For all the energy they expend, they actually kill only about 10% of the time. We can, as minders of domestic animals, protect them in effective ways. Those ways are numerous and varied, and for another discussion.
Let me turn to the advantages of a predator’s being in a given habitat. We know now that a predator affects the behavior of other animals. In places where there are no predators for ungulates (hooved animals), the landscape becomes over grazed, and certain trees, grasses, and flowers become stunted or don’t grow at all. This in turn affects what other animals can occupy that same habitat—or to put it another way, the animals, insects, and/or fish that used to live there historically, can no longer find enough food and shelter or shade for support. Allowing predators to stay keeps herds of ungulates moving around, so they graze over a wide area and do not decimate, say, a river bank or forest. This in turn allows birds, insects, and other mammals the habitat they need. Predators control other populations of smaller predators—like coyotes and foxes. This means that those animals cannot in turn, adversely affect the populations of even smaller mammals & birds. Predators don’t consume every last morsel of a carcass. They leave things behind, and it is those leavings that help in the support of other animals. Bears will eat those left overs when berries are out of season. Scavenger birds will pick things over.
These animals have evolved together over many thousands of years. There will never be an example of wolves eating all the deer. Their population depends on the deer. When humans have coyote hunts, we never effectively control the population of coyotes in the expected way. Coyotes always rebound, and increase their litters, and we often end up with more coyotes.
Predators don’t need to be managed by humans. They work it out just fine on their own. And they have a place in the environmental “big picture”. They keep the connectedness of things intact. They have, in a word, value.
by Laura DeYoung
photo of wolf track by Laura Deyoung