A Conservative Perspective on Predators
By DAVID JENKINS, REP Government Affairs Director
AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: This article first appeared in the C.E.P (Conservative Environmental Policy) Quarterly
I have often made the case that the preservation of wilderness areas is essential to the survival of conservatism. That is because truly wild places inspire self-reliance, personal responsibility, faith, and spiritual renewal in a world where those inherently conservative values are constantly under assault.
As an avid hiker, backpacker and paddler, I venture into the wilderness every chance I get. The experience reinforces my faith by increasing my appreciation for God’s handiwork—and my understanding of how everything in nature has its own unique purpose and value.
While exploring wild places, I have encountered my share of wildlife. The most memorable of these experiences usually involve predators. Observing a bear, wolf or mountain lion in the wild is awe-inspiring and it heightens one’s senses like few things can. For me, however, the true value of these experiences are more profound.
The presence of large predators completes a wilderness experience and enhances the benefits of it. Sharing the landscape with predators has given me a new level of appreciation and respect for how healthy ecosystems are supposed to work. It also forced me to approach my activities in the wild with more knowledge and humility—which has carried over to other aspects of life.
Unfortunately, many people—particularly in the West—possess a very different view of predators. They do not see them as God’s creatures that were put on earth for a purpose. They see them only as an inconvenience and threat that should be destroyed.
A BIT OF HISTORY
Most people probably know that wolf and grizzly bear populations in the lower 48 states were driven to virtual extinction before enactment of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1973. The specifics of how that happened are less well known.
When the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, it is estimated that the area now comprising the lower 48 was home to 250,000 wolves and more than 50,000 grizzly bears. Prior to being listed under the ESA, these impressive animals were the target of extensive extermination efforts by individuals, states and the federal government.
Bounties were put in place for killing wolves and grizzly bears, animal carcasses were laced with poison, dens were raided to kill the young. Between 1883 and 1918, bounties were claimed on over 80,000 wolves in Montana alone. Federal bounty hunters reported killing hundreds of thousands of wolves. Due to fraud, the actual number of wolves killed for bounty in the U.S. was probably less than reported, but still the figures accurately represent the scale of killing that took place.
Efforts to eradicate grizzly bears were similarly successful. Between 1850 and 1920, grizzly bears were eliminated from 95 percent of their original range.
The last grizzly in California, whose state flag is adorned with a grizzly bear, was killed in 1922. By the 1930s, they were completely gone from Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, and Oregon.
While that scale of killing is hard to get one’s mind around, even harder is the level of hatred and cruelty that people displayed in the effort to eradicate these creatures— particularly with respect to wolves. There are many first-hand accounts of wolf torture that include such practices as setting them on fire, severing their Achilles tendons, dragging them to death, and infesting them with mange.
Ranchers justified these efforts as a necessary effort to protect livestock from wolf and bear depredation, but the zeal for killing far exceeded any rational response given the levels of livestock loss attributable to these animals.
FEAR AND LOATHING
The historic record is full of cases in which livestock losses have been exaggerated or falsely blamed on wolves. According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service data, wolves get blamed for far more livestock deaths than they are actually responsible for.
The rhetoric employed by those who support predator eradication and oppose reintroduction is clearly designed to inflame passions and demonize these animals.
In his stump speeches, Idaho anti-wolf crusader Ron Gillette calls wolves “the most cruel, vicious animal in North America.” He ludicrously claims that they are “the only predator that eats its prey alive because they like the taste of warm blood.” His bottom line is “We don’t care if you nuke ’em or poison ’em, as long as they’re gone.”
Gillette, whose speeches actually draw sizable crowds, also tries to inflame passions and misconceptions about the impact of wolves on elk populations. He accuses wolves of “binge killing” elk just for sport—and argues that the presence of wolves will end hunting in Idaho.
Grizzlies catch it from both the left and the right. In the late 1990s, a proposal to reintroduce grizzly bears into Idaho’s Bitterroot Wilderness prompted Republican Congresswoman Helen Chenoweth, who represented Idaho’s 1st district at the time, to go on a crusade against the proposal and label the bears “man-eating animals.”
She found an ally in liberal columnist Richard Cohen, who wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post calling the bears “flesh-eating carnivores” and suggesting that all grizzly bears be confined to cages. In that op-ed, he also admitted that he is afraid of most animals, including fish.
Perhaps no one told Chenoweth or Cohen that grizzly bears are actually omnivores that are not known for predatory attacks on humans.
FACING THE FACTS
Conservatives are supposed to rationally approach issues based on facts and morality, not emotions that are born out of exaggeration and fear.
Given the level of attention ranchers give to the threat of wolf depredation, one might think that wolves pose the greatest risk to their livestock. The truth is that wolves account for only a minuscule portion of the livestock losses incurred by ranchers. Statistics show that weather, disease, theft, and other predators all pose a greater risk to livestock than wolves.
Some stewardship-conscious ranchers have had great success reducing livestock losses to wolves though management techniques that do not involve killing wolves, such as increasing herd density or utilizing Akbash guard dogs. In fact, killing can backfire by reducing pack size and forcing the remaining wolves to seek out non-traditional prey that are easier to kill.
The worries of hunters about elk, moose and deer populations being reduced by wolves are also exaggerated. While wolves naturally feed on these ungulates to survive, they—unlike hunters— typically cull the weakest animals. This ultimately results in healthier ungulate populations, with more trophy animals that hunters prize.
A USGS study in northern Minnesota that tracked wolf pack size and white-tail buck harvest by hunters from 1975 through 1997 found no significant relationship between wolf numbers and buck harvest.
Predators serve an important ecological role and their absence results in consequences that extend up and down the food chain. For example, the absence of predators results in elk overgrazing areas, which often leads to erosion that impairs streams and impacts fish populations.
In suburban areas where very little hunting is allowed and predators are not tolerated, deer populations have skyrocketed. Each year 1.5 million cars collide with deer, resulting in 150 deaths and 10,000 injuries.
As for grizzly bears, the facts also argue for less hysteria and more tolerance. There have been on average fewer than two fatal bear attacks per year in North America.