The story of how reintroduced wolves transformed Yellowstone is now well known. According to the story, wolves scared elk away from the riversides, which allowed the willows and aspen to recover, allowing beavers to come back because they had home-building material big enough to use, and the beaver dams restored the health of the watershed.
I remember reading this story in college. I was sitting at a computer in UVA’s Alderman Library, digging up articles for a class presentation, when I stumbled on the now highly controversial article, “Wolves and the Ecology of Fear.” It blew my mind: right then and there, at the beginning of my last year of college, I knew I wanted to study how predators drove ecosystem dynamics.
It’s a beautiful story, and one that changed the trajectory of my career. And it’s one that’s been very hard to let go of, despite mounting evidence over the last decade that this story might not be more than a myth.
I had the good fortune of meeting Arthur at the Ecological Society of America talk last summer. I was a big fan of the work that he’d done, and that of his Ph.D. advisor, Dr. Matt Kaufman. But I didn’t envy either of them as they stepped into the fire of trying to take down what has become a beloved, monumental, epic tale. There’s no doubt that behaviorally-mediated trophic cascades do exist, and that predators can have profound influences on ecosystems, but the long-standing poster child for this simply isn’t real.
If you do one thing on your coffee break today, read his piece. While I could summarize the debate here, I couldn’t begin to do justice to Arthur’s eloquent argument.
Scratch that. If there’s one thing you do today, read Arthur’s piece. Not only will it make you think about wolves and ecology, but it will make you think about what nature we save, why we save it, and why that matters.
Lion hunting is an active sport in Africa, with wealthy foreigners paying thousands of dollars for a chance to kill a lion and take its skin back home to taxidermy. Done right, lion hunting could benefit the species, by helping to pay for land protection and other conservation measures. However, too often it is done poorly.
For many years, Craig has been actively involved in figuring out how to do lion hunting sustainably. In 2009, he, Ali, and I, and a bunch of others wrote a paper (“Sport Hunting, Predator Control and Conservation of Large Carnivores”) about the pressures and dynamics of hunting large carnivores with a focus on lions and wolves. If you’re not a hunter yourself, you may believe that hunting and conservation are diametrically opposed to one another. But that’s not true; most hunters are also conservationists and many of the strongest wildlife protection laws in our country were championed by hunters. In our paper we explore the complexities that arise when you add the third party: not just hunters and conservationists, but also rural citizens, and particularly ranchers. While hunters want to maintain wildlife (to hunt, and often for other reasons as well), ranchers would be most happy if there were no predators around at all; predators like lions and wolves kill livestock and even threaten rural people. Wildlife managers then have the unhappy task of trying to please all three groups, and they often do so by employing hunters to maintain lower than full capacity predator populations.
Late last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service responded to a petition to list African lions as endangered species, which would prohibit the importation into the U.S. of lion trophies. This week the Tanzanian Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times about it, saying that doing so would cripple Tanzania’s ability to protect lions and other wildlife. Our intrepid safari reporter Chris Egert followed up with Craig on KSTP to get his take on the controversy. What do you think? Should the U.S. prohibit the importation of lion trophies? What do you think about hunting as a component of conservation? What can be done to reduce the conflict between large carnivores and the people who live (and tend livestock) near them? These are not questions with easy answers, and I’m curious to hear what Snapshot Serengeti fans think.