Wolves And Coyotes: Their Place In The Ecosystem Is Recognized
An Animal Rights Article from All-Creatures.org


E.M. Fay from Committee to Abolish Sport Hunting (CASH)
March 2010

Even if one were not concerned with the humane aspect of letting wolves live their natural lives, there is considerable evidence that culling large numbers of them causes harm to the ecosystem of which they are a part. Simply put, by reducing the number of predators in any given area, the plant-eating prey animals increase, thus placing an added strain on the vegetation in that region.

Man has ever sought to eliminate many of the other predatory animals on this planet. In pre-historic times, it may have made some sense that humans, with their comparatively feeble teeth and "claws," feared the competition that fiercer creatures presented while contending for scarce food resources. However, humans soon compensated for their physical puniness by inventing weapons with which to hunt. Over the millennia, wild animals' physical advantages were more than overcome by mankind's lethal ingenuity.

In modern times, even when food scarcity was not an issue, people have rationalized the killing off of such predators as wolves and coyotes by claiming that they threatened livestock or pets or even, occasionally, humans themselves. While it is true that wolves and coyotes, as well as other species, will kill and eat a chicken, a lamb, or even domestic animals when convenient and necessary for their survival, the situation arises because farmers, ranchers, and homeowners have moved into previously wild territory. By invading the traditional habitat of wildlife, we humans wipe out significant portions of predators' foraging area, pushing their "normal" food sources - ungulates, rodents, snakes, birds, fish, even berries and grasshoppers - out of that area. With their regular diet thus curtailed, the hungry wolf or coyote must then become an opportunist, and find a meal where they may. An unguarded flock of chickens or a pet cat may be their only option. If so, it is not of their choosing, but because of our choice to usurp their native lands.

The unnecessary and cruel practice of "sport" hunting has given some humans yet another reason to wish for the removal of wolves. Sport hunters and their supporters in state and federal agencies believe, or purport to believe, that wolves are serious competitors for the deer, elk, moose, and caribou that the "sportsmen" want for themselves. One huge difference, of course, is that whereas the wolf needs to kill hoofed mammals in order to live, the "sportsman" is generally killing for a trophy, the "thrill" of the hunt, or to somehow prove himself a superior being. (Never mind the absurd array of deadly weapons he needs to accomplish this feat.) Another important difference is that wolves (coyotes, too) purposely seek out the old, weak, or sickly members of a herd, as these are easier to bring down. That is part of the process of natural selection.

Natural predation actually aids in maintaining the health and viability of preyed-upon species. But the human "sport" hunter, for whom pride is a factor rather than hunger, aims for the largest, healthiest member of a herd - most often the biggest male with the largest set of antlers. (Sport hunters always brag about how many "points" their quarry possessed.) This sort of selection results in a weaker gene pool for the herd.

Most illogical of all the reasoning behind the human decision to kill wolves and coyotes is the quasi-mythological fear of the wild beast. Wolves especially suffer from an ingrained human fear, one that has been propagated well beyond rationality by fairy tales and spurious legends.

All of these factors have led to widespread killing of wolves and coyotes. And commonly, when wildlife advocates protest this slaughter, they have been shouted down by the gun lobby, "sport" hunters, and even such dubious public figures as former Governor Sarah Palin, who would abrogate the Federal Airborne Hunting Act of 1972 (which made it illegal to hunt from the air), or exploit its loopholes to permit shooting wolves, coyotes, even foxes from planes and helicopters on the grounds of leaving the deer and moose for only humans to have the privilege of killing. ( http://www.slate.com/id/2199140/ )

Even if one were not concerned with the humane aspect of letting wolves live their natural lives, there is considerable evidence that culling large numbers of them causes harm to the ecosystem of which they are a part. Simply put, by reducing the number of predators in any given area, the plant-eating prey animals increase, thus placing an added strain on the vegetation in that region.

An article by Daniel S. Licht, Joshua Millspaugh, Kyran Kunkel, Christopher Kochanny, and Rolf Peterson, in the February issue of BioScience, sheds some much-needed light on the subject of wolf "management." In "Using Small Populations of Wolves for Ecosystem Restoration and Stewardship," Licht, et al., write, "The absence of top-level predators in many natural areas in North America has resulted in overabundant ungulate populations, cascading negative impacts on plant communities, and the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem processes."

Acknowledging that certain segments of gray wolf populations are no longer officially deemed endangered or threatened, the authors continue: "We propose another paradigm for wolf conservation, one that emphasizes ecosystem recovery instead of wolf recovery. Improvements in technology, an enhanced understanding of the ecological role of wolves, lessons from other countries, and changing public attitudes provide a new context and opportunity for wolf conservation and ecosystem restoration. Under this new paradigm, small populations of wolves, even single packs, could be restored to relatively small natural areas for purposes of ecosystem restoration and stewardship." (We recommend that our readers read the BioScience article in its entirety, to do justice to the authors' proposal.)

The authors recognize the complications inherent in carrying out such a program, but the salient point regarding the positive impact of wolves on the ecosystem is well taken. And this theory begs another question: If wolves are a necessary part of a balanced environment, might we not infer that coyotes are, also? Dr. Licht has noted that as an ecologist, he "believes that we should strive for ecological integrity to the extent possible, especially on lands dedicated for such use. Coyotes are obviously a native species and part of that ecosystem integrity so as a general statement I would say 'yes' they are a 'useful part of an ecosystem.' (Of course, ranchers and hunters don't care about ecosystem integrity, and that's partly the reason they view things differently.)"

Coyotes have been demonized and hunted out of all proportion to the actual risks they pose to humans. Like the wolf, they have seen their habitat encroached upon as wild lands are "developed." Coyotes are known to eat a domestic cat when no other prey is readily available, but again, this is a direct result of ever-expanding human habitation - not to mention the carelessness of leaving one's pets outside unattended.

There are numerous examples of harm done when any one species is killed off. Perhaps the most notorious example occurred in 14th century Europe, where it was widely believed that cats were associated with Satan and witchcraft. Because of this irrational fear, cats were slaughtered in huge numbers. The arrival in Europe in this period of infected rats from Central Asia - the source of the Black Death, responsible for killing approximately a third of the human population - demonstrates the folly of eliminating a predator. Without their natural foe to keep their numbers in check, the rats flourished. People did not.

In an effort to restore the natural balance in the ecosystem, researchers and others have called for the reintroduction of wolves to the wild in various places, including our national parks. In 2004, a study made in Montana by W. J. Ripple and R. L. Beschta, Professors from Oregon State University, showed that wolves' influence on the distribution and behavior of elks would reduce the amount of time they spend foraging in woody vegetation. If wolves are finally being recognized as beneficial to natural environments, then surely, their cousins, the coyotes, are equally so.

To those of us who have always believed that coyotes and wolves have been unfairly stigmatized, and hunted with false justifications, the new studies are a welcome vindication. Considering that most people enjoy the company of their domesticated relatives, perhaps we may hope that the virtues of wild "dogs" - i.e., wolves and coyotes - may eventually be recognized, too. Not that they are cuddly pets who may share our homes, but that they are a vital component of a healthy, balanced ecosystem. And as our wild lands diminish in size and number, it is more important than ever that those that are left maintain their integrity as much as possible. Without wolves and coyotes present that will not be possible.

For those of us who love these animals as the precious beings they are, and recognize the spirit of each individual, we hope for the day that their persecution will end. After all, what is an ecosystem if not the sum total of all the individuals who comprise it?

E. M. Fay is the Associate Editor of the Wildlife Watch Binocular. She has been investigating news stories in depth by interviewing scientists, and others who are quoted in mainstream media. Her articles for C.A.S.H. uniquely offer deeper coverage, as well as answering questions that had not been asked by reporters who do not have C.A.S.H.'s focus.

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