Chewing on the debate over predator protection


I often wonder why the planet’s most efficient predator, that would be us, seems continually at war with less successful predators. And why other humans spend so much energy and money defending them. We have government agencies charged with managing wild animal populations that have managed the predators nearly to extinction. And we have environmental organizations determined to save them and their habitat.

Every time a coyote poaches a small pet, foothill residents demand animal control officers “do something” about it. A decade ago, coyotes were routinely trapped and “relocated” farther away from homes. In the early 1900s, there was even a bounty on the wily canines, and their numbers drastically decreased. When ranches were overrun by ground squirrels, rabbits and other rodents, coyotes were welcomed back.

The balance of nature demands both predator and prey.

Channel Island National Park officials are trying to remove some of the Golden Eagles that prey on the rare Santa Cruz Island foxes, which in turn prey on smaller birds. Ranchers in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana are furious over the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park, justifiably when they stray from the park to prey on livestock, but also because the park’s elk population, they say, is at its lowest sustainable level. Elk protection comes at a price, however. Wolf removal is sponsored by the outfitters and hunting guides. This may be just a fight over who gets to kill the elk. Wolves, they say, have reached their highest sustainable level.

In Montana, the Department of Fish Wildlife and Parks wants to spend about $1.6 million to buy a 6,850-acre easement from another state agency for elk and deer habitat. I’m afraid I know why. Hunting and fishing are a significant part of the state’s billion-dollar tourism business.

Wyoming has come up with its own wolf management plan, subject to approval by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which could then remove the wolves from the Endangered Species List. In some areas gray wolves would be classified “trophy game,” subject to hunting regulations. In other areas, presumably near livestock ranches, they would be classified as predators, which environmentalists say means “fire at will.” Wolves would still be protected in national parks. Montana and Idaho have similar plans, which some wildlife biologists and managers say should maintain viable wolf populations. Now, who’s going to protect all the animals from that other predator driving a snowmobile?

One clever Montana rancher has successfully protected his sheep herd from coyote predation for the last 10 years, not with tougher dogs, but with llamas, which have a natural affinity for sheep and apparently confuse the hell out of the coyotes. The rancher says they’ve come to an understanding: The llamas won’t let them take any lambs but they can have all the gophers and rabbits they want. Meanwhile, in Connecticut, where humans have eradicated most other predators from their tony suburbs, the white-tailed deer population threatens to overwhelm resources in the 285-acre Greenwich Audubon sanctuary. After studying options and finding no suitable alternative, Greenwich Audubon, for the first time ever, has sanctioned a deer hunt (bows and arrows only) on its property. The meat, about 500 pounds to date, is being donated to a local food bank to feed the hungry. Animal rights activists are livid, arguing that hunting is not only a cruel sport but adds to the imbalance of nature.

Here in our own backyard, the reviled predator of the moment is the usually elusive mountain lion. A recent attack in Orange County and the killing of goats a month ago have focused attention on what may be the only remaining male cougar in the Santa Monica Mountains.

Anne Hoffman’s (Jan. 8) letter speaks to many residents’ fears, particularly “breeding and reintroduction programs with an emphasis on threatened species . . . a goal of Malibu Creek State Park’s new General Plan.” On the other side, watershed management specialist Matthew Horns wrote in the L.A. Times that the ban on mountain lion hunting since the 1970s has increased their numbers modestly while attacks on humans have skyrocketed. “Lions have apparently lost their fear of humans since people stopped chasing them with dogs and shooting at them.” He doesn’t condone killing lions but says pursuing the ones that live close by would instill in them a renewed healthy fear of humans.

I agree.

There may never be a clear winner in this debate, but while some ranchers want to shoot every wolf in the Rocky Mountains, others are turning to “predator-friendly” farming, meaning ranchers, livestock and large predators can coexist.

In his new book, “Farming with the Wild,” Dan Imhoff writes: “People farm with the wild because they deeply care about the land as their home. It has economic value, but it also taps into life’s biggest questions. Why are we here? What is our place in the community of all species?”

Now there’s something we can all chew on.