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Next phase in protecting species: living with them

Large predator populations are growing across the US, raising concerns over how to manage healthy biodiversity.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 22, 2005


The Rogue Valley in southern Oregon is normally a mellow, small-town place where the major commercial export is Harry and David's fancy fruits and most of the violence comes at the hand of Richard III onstage at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. But lately, people have been keeping an eye out for predators on the prowl - not criminals, but tooth-and-claw types a critical notch above humans on the food chain.

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Dog walkers out for an evening stroll have spotted cougars in the town park. Pets and livestock have been mauled or sometimes killed. In the eastern part of the state, gray wolves from the wilds of Idaho have occasionally emigrated across the border, worrying ranchers and others.

It's not just a local phenomenon.

From Oregon, Idaho, and the northern Rockies to the upper Midwest and across to northern New England there are legal cases, legislative efforts, and political debates over how to control or accommodate what in some places are growing populations of large carnivores.

This includes everything from new hunting regulations to making space for wolves long since run out of their traditional roaming areas.

It's not just a matter of ranchers vs. environmentalists or suburbanites sprawling into wildlife habitat where the family beagle becomes prey. There are critical questions involving biodiversity and natural balance as well.

Scientists say the growth in carnivore populations, though not nearly as large as they were a century or two ago, has been good for the environment.

For example, more wolves in Yellowstone National Park and other parts of the West mean fewer elk, which is good for beavers, fish, and songbirds. Why? Because until the big-jawed meat-eaters came back to Yellowstone in the mid-1990s, the elk had been lazily chowing down on the willows, aspen, and other plants that are part of a healthy ecosystem.

In Florida, panthers (another name for mountain lions, pumas, or wildcats) had dwindled to near-extinction until officials brought in eight cougars from Texas several years ago. Since then, the number of Florida panthers has begun to edge back up.

Florida, Washington, Arizona, and Montana, among others, have begun constructing wildlife bridges and tunnels to keep large predators from becoming roadkill.

By the mid-20th century, wolves had been hunted to near-extinction in the contiguous United States. Protected since 1975 under the Endangered Species Act and reintroduced into Yellowstone and Idaho, wolves have been making a strong comeback.

In Wisconsin, the number of wolves has grown exponentially from just 15 in 1985 to 455 today. Defenders of Wildlife estimates that there now are about 760 wolves in the northern Rockies, 3,200 in the Great Lakes area (including 2,450 in Minnesota), plus a small number of Mexican wolves in Arizona and New Mexico and red wolves in North Carolina.

Three Idaho wolves have crossed into Oregon. One was hit by a car, one was shot, and one was captured and returned to Idaho. Absent stricter management, a wolf pack is likely to establish itself in Oregon.

In anticipation of that eventuality, officials here have been wrestling with a proposed wolf-management plan. Ranchers and farmers say the answer is to keep the animals out.