Mexican Gray Wolves
What Good Are Large Carnivores?
There are many good reasons to care about carnivores. The very term means ‘meat eater’ and they do kill and eat other animals, which can arouse fear and loathing in some people. Trout and praying mantises also kill and eat other animals, by the way. Praying mantises could just as well be named preying mantises.
But when we are talking about biological classification, ‘carnivore’ is the term for an order (order, family, genus, species): it designates mammals with carnassial teeth. Carnassial teeth are the pairs of teeth on the sides of the jaw where molars appear in humans and deer. Rather than the top carnassials falling flat onto the bottom ones, they overlap the bottom ones like a pair of scissors – good for cutting meet, hide and sinew.
Thus, bears, which are actually omnivores, are classified as carnivores because they have carnassial teeth. In reality, most bears eat mainly vegetation, such as grass and tubers and pine nuts. Coyotes too, unlike their cousin the wolf, eat a lot of vegetation and even garbage. That’s one reason they do so well living near, and even in, our cities. I heard coyotes yipping in the middle of the day while walking Luna dog in lower City Creek just yesterday. So did Luna, and it really caught her attention.
Back to the question: Why protect and conserve wild carnivores? Here are some of the main reasons.
Cougars and wolves are especially good at keeping ungulate herds healthy, as they tend to remove the least healthy animals. Wolves are in fact very much analogous to the white corpuscles of our own immune systems, in that they key in on sick and feeble animals and remove them from the population. This could be especially important when a disease such as the encroaching chronic wasting disease (CWD) begins to affect herds of deer and elk in the Rocky Mountains, as has already begun to happen. Cougars, too, have been shown to focus preferentially on deer that have CWD.
Mesopredators, such as the coyote and the bobcat, do much to keep rodent populations under control.
Cougars and wolves in particular also keep prey populations within the carrying capacity of the habitat. You may recall that Aldo Leopold warned Arizona game managers not to kill off all the cougars and wolves on the Kaibab Plateau, but they did so anyway, hoping it would result in more deer. And did it ever – with devastating consequences. In fact, this was the main scientific justification for reintroducing wolves to Yellowstone. The elk herd had grown way beyond carrying capacity and was wreaking havoc on the land and its wild denizens.
Think of large wild carnivores as the evolutionary dance partners of wild ungulates. They shaped each other into what each now is through the long eons of evolution. They belong together. They need each other. Now we are beginning to “think like a mountain,” as Aldo Leopold put it in a famous essay by that title.
Add to this the fact that cougars, bears, wolves, bobcats, coyotes, lynxes, fishers, otters, martens, foxes and wolverines are just plain beautiful animals. And the stories of their lives are fascinating.
Large carnivores are always fewer in number than the species they prey upon. Thinks of the shape of the food pyramid. In all of Yellowstone National Park, at any given time there are only about 75 wolves and only about 25 cougars – all in an area that is roughly 3600 square miles. That’s one large carnivore for every 36 square miles – hardly too many. Adult animals need large home ranges.
Thus, protecting and conserving large carnivores requires protecting and conserving large areas of habitat, which not only results in protection and conservation of the carnivores, but of all the other species of plant and animal that live there as well. For this reason, large carnivores are sometimes referred to as “umbrella species”.
Large carnivores have been heavily persecuted since the first pioneers settled the West. Indeed, the wolf was entirely eradicated from the Western U.S. by about the mid-1930s. Only in the late 1960s were cougars finally removed from the list of vermin and given the status of a protected species in the Western states (which, outside of Florida, were the only ones that still had populations of cougars). Now, with the sole exception of Texas, all states west of the Mississippi River that have cougar populations require a permit for hunting them. California has gone a step further and completely outlawed the hunting of cougars. If a cougar kills your goat, you have to get a special “depredation” permit to kill that specific cougar. Only 100 or so cougars are killed on depredation permits in California each year. Last year, Utah killed 400 cougars.
Western Wildlife Conservancy is a small organization, and the only one in the state of Utah whose mission is to resist the regressive forces of carnivore oppression and persecution that are very strong here – a state where the largest convention of the year is now the “Hunting Expo” which caters mainly to trophy hunters. We will keep on doing our best to educate folks on the importance of carnivore protection and conservation, and to advocate for these wonderful creatures.
Coyotes Coyotes in Utah are treated as vermin and can be killed at any time. In designated areas of Utah, the state government offers a $50 bounty on coyotes in a dubious effort to increase mule deer populations. Coyote hunting contests are held near towns like Beaver, Utah. Western Wildlife Conservancy works to expose the barbarous treatment of coyotes and promote co-existence. Black Bears Black bears in Utah are subject to being chased with hounds. Hunters set out bait to attract bears. Orphaned bear cubs are sometimes left behind to starve. Hardly anyone eats bears. A desire for a trophy on the wall is no excuse for killing bears. Western Wildlife Conservancy testifies before the Utah Wildlife Conservancy annually to reduce and finally eliminate trophy hunting of bears. Cougars Cougars are hunted in Utah, sometimes with hounds. Cougars are an important apex carnivore keeping nature in balance with their interactions with prey species. Like black bears, hardly anyone eats cougars and there is no excuse for hunting cougars. Cougar conservation has always been a major focus of Western Wildlife Conservancy. Wildlife Management Reform Most Western states have atrocious wildlife management policies. State wildlife commissions and boards are almost all captured by trophy hunting and agricultural interests. "Non-consumptive" wildlife watchers and people concerned about ecological integrity have little to no representation on decision-making bodies. Ideas about managing wildlife as a "public trust responsibility" and heeding the "precautionary principle" when faced with uncertainty are alien to these agencies' practice. Western Wildlife Conservancy is taking the lead in organizing wildlife protection advocates across the West to reform wildlife management so it is democratic, ecologically responsible, and humane.