Next phase in protecting species: living with them

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

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.

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.

"Wolf proponents expound that more cattle and sheep die of disease, [or from] coyote or dog predation than they do from wolves," says Sharon Beck of the Oregon Cattlemen's Association wolf task force. "I don't know what I'm missing but that doesn't sound like a good argument to add wolves into the mix to me."

Environmentalists disagree, pointing out that even with their recent increases wolves still occupy less than 5 percent of their original range in the contiguous 48 states. Meanwhile, a Federal District Court Judge in Vermont last month ordered the US Interior Department to proceed with efforts to restore wolves to remote areas of four northeastern states - New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.

In 2003, the Interior Department had ruled that since gray wolf populations had been successfully restored in the upper Midwest, there was no need to do any more across a 21-state Eastern region. But Judge J. Garvan Murtha said the agency could not remove or weaken protections under the federal Endangered Species Act simply by lumping together a "core population" of wolves with "a low to nonexistent population outside of the core area."

In other words, wolves are to be restored as endangered species in areas where they've been driven out even though they're back thriving in other parts of the United States. Or, in the case of Alaska with 7,000 to 10,000 wolves, where wildlife officials shoot them from the air in order to benefit other game animals like moose and caribou.

Both cougars and wolves need wide territories. As wolf packs grow, they split off into new groups and migrate to new areas (like eastern Oregon from Idaho). Cougars are solitary animals, but they, too, need their own territory. Mature cats will kill younger ones that don't move on - which increasingly means toward urban areas populated with deer.

After three years of study, Utah State University researchers Andreas Chavez and Eric Gese reported recently that wolves in an agricultural area of northwestern Minnesota eat mostly deer, muskrat, and moose. Domestic stock - mainly cows and pigs - made up just 15 percent of the wolves' diet.

"Furthermore, all of the livestock killed by wolves were restricted to very vulnerable individuals (calves, diseased adults, sheep), indicating healthy cattle were able to protect themselves from wolves," the researchers found. Between environmentalists and farmers, that is a debatable point.

Here in Oregon, the main issue remains cougars. Trappers, bounty hunters, and others had reduced the big cats' population almost to extinction. In 1994, voters approved a ballot measure forbidding the use of radio-collared hunting dogs to chase down and tree cougars.

That helped increase the number of cougars here by nearly 70 percent, from about 3,000 to some 5,000 big cats. But it also has been linked to more complaints regarding human safety as well as the loss of pets and livestock - from 524 in 1994 to 864 last year. Matthew Boren of Eagle Point, Ore., who has lost several sheep to coyotes and cougars over the years, now uses a llama to guard his flock.

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