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Learning to think like a mountain

By George Wuerthner

In the 1940s ecologist Aldo Leopold penned his now famous essay “Thinking like a Mountain.” In his youth Leopold killed a wolf, but with reflection and wisdom that comes with age, he realized that wolves played a critical role in the interaction between prey species like deer and elk and plant communities. After seeing how too many deer and elk can strip a mountain of its vegetation, Leopold lamented that we needed to learn to think like a mountain — in other words, have a long-term view of the ecological role and value of predators.

It is disheartening that even after the passage of many decades, and much scientific evidence to support Leopold’s contention that wolf predation is critical to ecological integrity, state wildlife agencies like Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks still treat wolves as a pariah instead of an important and welcome member of the state’s fauna.

Wolves — along with other natural processes including other predators, drought, harsh winters and competition between species — play an essential role in occasionally reducing prey populations so that vegetative communities can recover from heavy browsing pressure.

Even where wolves do not necessarily reduce prey populations, they can change the way elk and deer use habitat. In Yellowstone National Park researchers have found that the presence of wolves appears to have caused elk to use steeper terrain and remain closer to forest cover than in the past, thus reducing browsing pressure on willows and riparian vegetation.

Wolves can also provide important year-round carrion for scavenger species. The mere presence of wolves can reduce coyotes, which in turn, can reduce pronghorn fawn predation losses to coyotes.

These are only a few of the many ecological values attributed to the presence of wolves. Researchers have found that everything from songbirds to trout benefit from the presence of wolves. Unfortunately, FWP has done little to promote the ecological benefits associated with wolf predation.

Recent research on the social ecology of predators suggests indiscriminate killing — which sport hunting is — can disrupt the social interactions within predator populations — but you won’t hear this from FWP. Hunting, skewing predator populations to a younger age population, can affect age and social structure within packs.

Because it takes several years for a wolf to achieve full hunting skill, younger animals are more likely to attack livestock. Thus hunting — rather than reducing conflicts between livestock producers and predators — may exacerbate conflicts.

Plus fragmented predator populations characterized by younger, smaller packs may actually consume as much elk and deer as a much larger pack. If, for instance, hunting creates 2-3 smaller packs in the same general geographical area as one large pack, the total number of elk and deer killed by wolves may actually be increased.

Furthermore, many of the conflicts with ranchers are self-created by poor animal husbandry practices. Research has shown that the presence of carrion can attract predators like wolves and increase predation losses. Thus prompt removal and deposal of dead animals is critical to reducing predator losses.

Other research has shown that the presence of guard dogs, lambing/calving sheds, and frequent monitoring of livestock, among other husbandry practices, can all reduce wolf predation losses. But ranchers have long ago learned that they can “externalize” one of their costs of operations — reducing predator opportunity — by getting taxpayers to kill predators.

So we have a self-fulfilling and self-reinforcing process whereby agencies like MDFWP and Wildlife Services often indiscriminately kill predators, thereby upsetting the social ecology of predators, which leads to greater conflicts, which in turn sprawls even more demands for predator control.

It is time that FWP starts thinking like a mountain. It can begin by promoting the ecological benefits of predators, and acknowledge that hunting is a crude and poor strategy to effectively deal with legitimate and surgical predator removals.

George Wuerthner is an ecologist and the author of 35 books as well as a former Montana hunting guide. He lives part-time in Montana.