A new century with carnivores

Learning to see predators as companions, not competition.

  • A wolf and grizzly bear encounter in Yellowstone National Park.

    Nathan Lovas
 

The Carnivore Way: Coexisting with and Conserving North America’s Predators

Cristina Eisenberg

308 pages, hardcover

$30.

Island Press, 2014.

 

The Predator Paradox: Ending the War with Wolves, Bears, Cougars, and Coyotes

John Shivik

208 pages, hardcover

$26.95.

Beacon Press, 2014.

 

If early settlers considered killing predators a matter of survival, the last century made it a profession. Even as the passenger pigeon became extinct in 1914, the federal government began to drive most predators toward the same fate. The 1931 Animal Damage Control Act codified the slaughter of dozens of species to protect agriculture, and mammalian predators fared the worst. It’s a war that continues today: In each of the last five years alone, the federal government has dispatched an average of 80,092 wolves, cougars, bears and coyotes.

But since 1914, we have also come to realize that apex predators are essential to land health. In their absence, food webs are collapsing worldwide at astounding rates. And where predators have recovered, ecosystems have, too. For example, in some places where wolves have returned to their former haunts, elk no longer overbrowse the riverbanks, and the keener-eyed, more fleet-footed survivors are producing stronger herds. Aspen and willows regrow, creating shade for trout, food for beavers and homes for songbirds. In an era of changing climate and decreasing biodiversity, such “trophic cascades” contribute to more resilient, intact relationships between plants and animals —  and people.

Biologist Cristina Eisenberg became fascinated watching these relationships develop on her land in northern Montana. Her doctoral research at Oregon State University and her 2011 book The Wolf’s Tooth made her a leading spokeswoman for the ecological roles of carnivores. Now, in The Carnivore Way, Eisenberg gathers her most compelling stories and the latest science from the Mexico to Alaska to help human beings learn how to coexist with the key carnivores in the Greater Rocky Mountains — the wolf, cougar, grizzly bear, lynx, wolverine and jaguar.

Eisenberg’s book finds an ideal complement in a new title by U.S. Department of Agriculture and university biologist John Shivik. The Predator Paradox provides an inside look at Utah State University's Millville Predator Research Facility and its innovations in nonlethal management. A masterful storyteller and bold critic, Shivik provides realistic, hands-on solutions to help us share the landscape effectively.

Whether wandering along a ranch or across an ecosystem, a predator’s path through any landscape is fraught with challenges. Consider that a cougar, after successfully travelling thousands of miles, may fail to cross the best-intentioned wildlife overpass because of the peculiar feline preference for underpasses. But the growing collision threats to predators (and people) are just one reason why it is essential for infrastructure to reflect the movement patterns of wildlife. And even without physical barriers, wildlife policies can also create obstacles. For a grizzly, a single step from British Columbia into Washington could mean the difference between being a protected species or becoming a trophy in someone’s living room. For Eisenberg, these examples suggest the need for functional wildlife corridors and effective transboundary collaboration on a continental scale. 

If Eisenberg wants to help us understand how predators use habitat, Shivik wants to get us into their heads. He knows that even the most wily of sheep thieves can be idiosyncratic, impatient, gullible and distracted. The strychnine-laced carcasses and pitfall traps of early “wolfers” and bounty hunters made this clear, but Shivik offers preventative, nonlethal options. Killing the culprit may be temporarily effective, but the gap left behind often leads to more trouble, especially when younger, immature animals move in. Shivik’s meticulous research into the timing, the senses and the habits of predators suggests that it is better to make livestock appear unappetizing from the start —  like a filet mignon dropped into a blazing fire. Recounted with clarity and pragmatism, his stories will amuse and inspire: Who would have guessed that a wolf would be afraid of flagging? Or that coyotes could be hazed away with strobe lights and sirens? Or that a bear could be barked down by the hyperactive Karelian dogs once bred to hunt them?

Both Eisenberg and Shivik are also hunters —  of elk —  but they have learned to see predators as companions, not competition, in the making of healthier herds and habitat. And they know that the American West is still a place where, given the chance, predators can continue to surprise us. Above all, they believe in the possibility of coexistence. After all, it was only in 2012 that the 1,200-mile travels of an Oregon wolf inspired California to list the species as endangered and develop a federal/state coordination plan. If that wolf found enough wild habitat to usher him safely through the ranchlands of eastern Oregon —  and become the first of his kind since 1924 to return to the most heavily populated state in the country —  there is hope.