Carnivores for Health

August 12, 2014

For New York’s Adirondack Park to be indisputably the wildest, healthiest landscape in the East, we need to welcome home Cougars and Wolves. Although Adirondack forests have recovered beautifully from past destruction, and with them have returned Beaver, Fisher, Moose, and other once-extirpated species, our top predators have not yet returned in functional numbers. Still lacking their wild guardians, their original backcountry rangers, our forests are vulnerable to over-browsing by deer. Along with protecting wildlife habitat connections (wildways, or wildlife corridors) within the Park and from the Park to wildlands beyond, we can help ensure that the Adirondacks stay forever wild by restoring missing species, especially Cougar and Wolf. As first steps, we should prevail upon the US Fish & Wildlife Service and New York Department of Environmental Conservation to conduct feasibility studies, which should look at the ecological, economic, and social effects of carnivore recovery.

Such restoration, I believe the studies would show, will benefit native fauna and flora – especially songbirds, salamanders, wildflowers, and tree seedlings – and will make the Park a more pleasant and safer place to live for people, too. Without proposing a direct correlation between predator and prey numbers – Nature is more complex than that – I will suggest that restoring large carnivores and maintaining the big wild habitat cores and connections they need to thrive will benefit the ecology, economy, ethics, aesthetics, and health of the Adirondack Park and Northern Appalachians.

I made a pitch for Cougar recovery recently so, though I suspect that is the ideal species for rewilding efforts in the East – along with American Eel for waterways – I’ll focus largely on Wolves here. Later, I’ll address other extirpated or diminished species, including Harbor Seal, Landlocked Salmon, Lake and Brook Trout, Lake Sturgeon, Lynx, Elk …

Why Wolves? Because they are the consummate top predator in North America, serving as rangers or guardians of wild ecosystems by keeping herbivores from severely over-browsing or overgrazing plant communities. Wolves help keep White-tail and Mule Deer, Moose, Elk, and Caribou numbers from overshooting the carrying capacity of the land. Equally important, Wolves keep the ungulates moving. With the return of Wolves, browsers become wary and mobile again, no longer lazily browsing lush areas (often decimating the wildflowers we humans like to see), but rather moving frequently – allowing plants to recover. This behavioral regulation of herbivores may be even more important than the numerical modification Wolves provide. Wolves in the Northeast would probably mean slightly fewer deer in the Adirondacks and somewhat fewer Moose in Maine but stronger individuals and healthier plant communities.

Economic Benefits of Restoration

Wolves and Cougars could also enhance local and regional economies, in at least two ways. First, these top predators will allow hardwoods to regenerate, which will help woods products industries. In some parts of the East, over-browsing by deer has virtually halted hardwood regrowth. So far, the Adirondacks and Northern Appalachians have had cold and snowy enough winters to prevent massive deer overshoot, but with warming climate, we could face the same eating down of the forest that parts of the Southern and Central Appalachians are already facing. (For a preview of what our forests could look like with continued warming and too few top predators, walk Shawangunk woods, where you will find many thorny plants but very few wildflowers or hardwood seedlings.)

Wildlife-watching Destination — Second, the return of our charismatic megafauna would attract numerous wildlife-watchers, bolstering the tourism industry. Hundreds of thousands of tourists a year visit Yellowstone National Park and Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in hopes of seeing, or at least hearing, a pack of Wolves. Adirondack Park could become the Boundary Waters of the Northeast, if we welcomed back the big animals we exterminated last century, to the enrichment of guides, hotel and restaurant owners, and other local business-people.

Social Benefits of Ecological Restoration

Welcoming back the carnivores we shot out long ago would also benefit us ethically. Perhaps more than any other natural phenomena, carnivores test our decency, morality, and ethics. Generous people live and let live, all native species, even if some are at times vexing. Carnivores demand of us foresight and restraint, as they slowly improve the health of our shared ecosystems yet need big wild cores and connections between them to flourish. I believe North Americans’ response to large carnivores is one of the ultimate ethical tests of our time (along with addressing the larger but related extinction and climate crises).

The aesthetic benefits of restoring Wolves and Cougars are obvious to anyone who loves seeing beautiful animals in the wild. The aesthetic benefits, though, go way beyond the beauty of the creatures themselves (and it should be admitted: only a lucky few will ever so much as glimpse a Cougar, so shy and elusive are they; and even the more communal and louder Wolves will be invisible to anyone not looking carefully). Return of top carnivores would mean healthier, richer wildflower and songbird populations. Our forests and streams will be more beautiful and more musical once carnivores have restored natural balances.

Public Safety

Finally, we come to some speculative but compelling reasons to restore carnivores: as agents of healthy balance, as hedges against outbreaks of zoonotic diseases. These hypotheses may not yet be provable, but very possibly the public health benefits of top carnivores patrolling our woods and waters will, once understood, persuade even the crustiest old gunners to let them live. Carnivores will enhance public health in several ways: Wolves and Cougars will trim the deer population, which at present is unnaturally abundant in many parts of the East (due to elimination of large predators, fragmentation of forest, and supplemental feeding). Deer kill more than 200 Americans a year (two orders of magnitude more than all native carnivores in North America combined kill), mostly in collisions with cars. Deer are also vectors for black-legged ticks, which carry Lyme disease and other afflictions.

As a personal aside: I’ve trekked thousands of miles across many of the wilder parts of North America, often in territory of Grizzly and/or Black Bears, Wolves, and big cats. The only carnivores who have ever given me any trouble are domestic dogs. The animals I fear most, by far, are ticks. I’ve had Lyme disease, and it scares me more than the toothiest beasts on the planet.

Some carnivores do occasionally prey on livestock, but this problem can be addressed with compensation programs for farmers who do lose animals, careful husbandry, and again realistic appraisal of relative risks. Dogs kill more livestock than do Wolves or Cougars. Still, consumers need to be willing to pay a little extra for predator-friendly meat and other ecologically-sound goods.

I’ll save for another ramble the questions about which Wolf the Northeast had (Gray or Red or both or something in between) and whether Coyotes have begun to fill part of its niche; and whether active reintroduction is necessary, or whether we should save the wildlife corridors that allow the carnivores to recolonize on their own, or both (I’d vote for both). To bring this ramble back around, we ought for personal as well as ecological reasons restore top carnivores in the East. Cougars and Wolves, and Lynx and Wolverine in boreal parts of our region, will help restore forest health, bolster regional economies, enhance our ethical standing, beautify our environments, and keep us safer and healthier. Of course, we should not expect instant miracles. We’ve spent centuries exploiting and diminishing wild things; they and we will need a few decades to restore the balance.

John Davis has recently walked, biked and canoed from Florida to the Gaspe’ Peninsula (see trekeast) and from Mexico to British Columbia (see trekwest) researching present and potential wildlife corridors and educating the public about the need for them in light of the probable effects of climate change and other human impacts on our native wildlife, in cooperation with the Wildlands Network.

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