By Sidney Campbell, Education and Outreach Coordinator
“Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf.”
-Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac
When I was in high school, I was encouraged by one of my teachers to read A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold. Being a voracious reader, I did. I thought that it was interesting, but soon forgot about it, being more engrossed in my teen angst than the writing of a long dead conservationist. When I picked the book up again in college, it changed my life.
In Western culture, it becomes ingrained in us from the beginning that predators are dangerous villains. All of us grew up knowing the story of Little Red Riding Hood, who is saved from the villainous wolf by the valiant woodsman. Many of us saw movies like Jaws which portray a large predator as being driven only by bloodthirsty instinct. This fear of predators certainly has an honest beginning– there was a time (many thousands of years ago) that we as a species were dependent on this fear for our survival. Some studies suggest that we might actually be genetically predisposed to fear predators (DeLoache and LoBou 2008, Rosen et al. 2008) This is perhaps one reason that we as a society feel the need to “manage” predator populations. Let’s take a moment, though, to talk about the role of predators within an ecosystem.
Red Riding Hood and The Wolf from a publication by Alfred L. Sewell.
If you’ve seen The Lion King (and there’s really no excuse if you haven’t), you know the song. Mufasa describes the “Circle of Life” to Simba in a few simple sentences: “Everything you see exists together in a delicate balance. As king, you need to understand that balance and respect all the creatures, from the crawling ant to the leaping antelope”. Sensible young Simba wonders “But, dad, don’t we eat the antelope?”, to which Mufasa replies “Yes, Simba, but let me explain. When we die, our bodies become the grass, and the antelope eat the grass. And so we are all connected in the great Circle of Life”. That, in a nutshell, is how an ecosystem works. It’s a delicate balance of consume and be consumed. When you remove one part of this balance, it all falls apart.
So now let’s talk about apex predators. Apex predators are those “top of the food chain” big scary villainous predators who don’t have any predators themselves. These are species like wolves, sharks, pumas—you get the picture. Raptors often fall into the apex predator category, especially larger species like eagles. As consumers ourselves, we are often tempted by the idea that to remove apex predators would mean to inflate game species. In his essay Thinking Like a Mountain, which appears in A Sand County Almanac, Leopold reminisces that he “thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise”. In some ways, he was correct. No wolves certainly means more deer. The extirpation of wolves in the mid-west, for example, has resulted in a serious over-abundance of white-tailed deer. His assumption failed, however, to account for the impact that too many deer would have on their habitat. As Leopold puts it, “In the end the starved bones of the hoped-for deer herd, dead of its own too-much, bleach with the bones of the dead sage”. Dead of its own too-much is exactly what we’ve seen in the mid-west, where white-tailed deer populations are dying of chronic wasting disease (Wild et al. 2011).
Aldo Leopold in 1938. Photo courtesy of USDA.
To “think like a mountain” means to see in the long term. Leopold crystallizes this idea, writing “I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades”. Thinking like a mountain is especially important now, when many of the protections that were previously in place for predator species are being removed. One of the reasons I chose to work with predators is to try and encourage people to think beyond their ingrained fear. So today I encourage you, the reader, to read a little further. Pick up a copy of A Sand County Almanac and start learning to think like a mountain.
DeLoache, J. S., V. LoBou. 2008. “The narrow fellow in the grass: human infants associate snakes and fear”. Developmental Science 12(1): 201-207.
Rosen, J. B., J. H. Pagani, K. L. G. Rolla, C. Davis. 2008. “Analysis of behavioral constraints and the neuroanatomy of fear to the predator odor trimethylthiazoline: A model for animal phobias”. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 32(7): 1267-1276.
Wild, M.A., N.T. Hobbs, M.S. Graham, and M.W. Miller. 2011. “The role of predation in disease control: A comparison of selective and non-selective removal of prion diseases in deer”. Journal of Wildlife Diseases 47(1): 78-93.