Tuesday, May 10, 2011

No Lions in My Back Yard by Will Stolzenburg

For the record, I’m stealing this title from an essay written a few years back by ecologists Josh Donlan and Harry Greene, who were prompted to respond to the blizzard of hate mail they received after spearheading a proposal to bring some of America’s missing beasts back to the country’s wildest, unpeopled spaces. Donlan and Greene were widely excoriated for their “rewilding” proposal, which many wrongly interpreted as a capricious plot to dump truckloads of lions and elephants in the suburbs of Topeka. In the spirit of that rousing episode of conservation history, I’d like to continue in the vein of my first post, wondering what constitutes nature in 21st century America. And what Leopold might have thought about modern society’s faltering attempts to accept some of our most controversial creatures, more than a half century after he first suggested the idea.

Leopold in his day certainly suffered for his vocal views on trimming the deer herd and extending an olive branch to their predators. His sense of balance was derided by many of those charged with managing America’s wildlife. And even though the commenters on this blog would seem to back Leopold’s plea for a fuller, richer rendition of nature where the opportunities still exist, I wonder how widely or deeply that sentiment really runs. Karen posted a comment about her appreciations of the wolves now roaming her home state of Montana. Yet even as she writes, the recent stripping of federal protections for wolves in Montana and Idaho reminds us that those who fear and hate the big predators still wield the political clout.

And Harper raises a great point about making the best of those little strands of nature that will probably never again be fit for big beasts. But what about those places whose options have yet to be foreclosed?

Case in point: North America’s last remaining lion, the cougar, has lately been venturing eastward, apparently reclaiming the lost half of the continent that used to be its home. Lone males, seeking new territories and mates, have been showing up from Wisconsin to Louisiana—places people have forgotten they ever existed. And for their efforts, most of these pioneers are getting shot. Many are being killed on trumped up charges of public endangerment and livestock attacks. The bottom line: Those in charge—and a certain vocal segment of the citizens they represent—simply don’t want the big cats anywhere near where they live.

I wonder if we do too little thinking like a mountain, and too much acting like a gated community, no trespassers allowed. Nobody is seriously suggesting we foster cougars or wolves in Central Park. But contrary to what we’ve been led to believe, there remains a surprising number of places where with a little foresight and tolerance—of the kind Leopold so eloquently proposed—we could begin to restore the full sweep of nature’s diversity, lions included. I wonder what Leopold would think to see how far we’ve come since he dared to share such a vision.

Here's a thought: If it were deemed ecologically plausible to harbor mountain lions in your particular neck of the woods (assuming they're not already there), would you support a measure to reintroduce them? And why?

21 comments:

Karen Lindsey said...

Thank you for being this week's moderator, Will. You raise some good questions. I think Leopold would say we've NOT come near far enough since he shared his vision in Thinking Like a Mountain. Yes, I believe we have made great strides (i.e., the Endangered Species Act, the Wilderness Act, the science of conservation biology and a host of other things), but we have so far to go in a few key areas. I know there are numerous efforts to inform and educate, yet there are still those who would shoot a cougar (or wolf) onsite now and ask questions later. You mention that there are still places where we can restore biodiversity, and I agree, but there are still those who don't understand why we should bother.

Politics are alive and well in the natural resource conservation arena in our country. The recent order by Congress to remove the wolf from protected status in Montana and Idaho was an unfortunate manipulation of our legislative system. I truly believe that the majority of citizens would not have allowed that to happen if it had been an issue that stood on its own, and had not been bundled with our national budget and wartime issues. However, what's done is done. We, you and I, and all those who care will continue to work toward's Leopold's vision and ethic. We will continue to engage. There is no shortage of heated debate in the local Montana newspaper blogs about wolves and elk. And where will we get our strength to carry on? From those walks in the woods and fields and along those narrow strands of nature that some areas in our country still offer--searching out the sight of a wolf or the sound of a meadowlark.

will stolzenburg said...

Karen, your point about attitude and education—or lack thereof—is to my mind the toughest hurdle toward rescuing and restoring wildness in this world. (Well, that and the unspoken elephant in the room, namely our 7-billion-and-counting world populace.) There are some who see the light when presented with the facts about the lifegiving worth of our fellow creatures, there are many others who seem to have the blinds permanently drawn. Particularly with regards to the great predators, there is both nurture and nature heavily at work here. Some of us are brought up to fear and loathe wildness and its iconic carnivores. And most of us come born with an instinctual if subconscious dread of those beasts that at one point in our evolution, when the odds were a little more even, gave us something to truly fear. It seems we would do better to examine and recognize where our values are coming from.

In the previous post, Jaren commented on seeing “droves of walkers and hikers” in the parks of his Los Angeles suburbs, many of them oblivious to the nature of their surroundings. I see that as both problem and promise. Yes, it would be nicer for all if they better appreciated their surroundings. But at least they’re out there, rather than shutting themselves inside. By just being out there, they’re more susceptible to being struck by one of the myriad miracles that invariably pop up on the trail—those epiphanies that change attitudes and foster compassion for our fellow creatures.

Guy said...

All--this morning, I heard a story on the radio that detailed efforts JUST YESTERDAY to tranquilize and relocate a large mountain lion that had made its way into one of our local parks in northern Colorado.

My first reaction was very visceral: we often take our young children to that park, and when we're near that area, the kids are never out of sight. There is a natural fear there--but not a fear that makes me want these animals removed. More a fear that recognizes the (low) risks of the place where we live.

My second thought, though, took me back to some of these discussion themes and the great value I place in the natural world and wildness. The question to me is how we get the general population to see and understand and feel that value. Does this rely on millions upon millions of Leopold-like transformational experiences, the myriad miracles on the trail? What other tools do we have to get people to experience those values?

Anonymous said...

Hello all -

What a wonderful opportunity it is to have this kind of conversation - I appreciate Will's provocative questions and the thoughtful responses from other posters.

For my part, I would support a reintroduction. I aim to take as many lunch time walks as possible through the nearby woods and it is striking: no matter which direction I choose, I see deer. Every time. In the absence of large predators to regulate the population, our local woods have become a veritable deer factory. I was quite excited to hear a rumor that coyotes are moving into the area - if this is true, perhaps they will fill the niche that wolves once filled. My question is this: where true recovery isn't possible due to economic/political factors, is it okay to accept something a little less ecologically truthful, such as coyotes taking over what once belonged to wolves? Is it better than having no recovery? Or should we still not settle? And what happens if humans begin to respond to these new "replacement species" in the same way we responded to their predecessors?

Jared Burton said...

I've been reading The Sespe Wild by Bradley Monsma, in which he writes about loss of the grizzly bear in southern California (a specifically adapted sub-species to drouth). The black bear now has filled its niche, for as well as it can understand. In this case, I'm not so sure how re-introducing the grizzly to the same area as black bears would work. Human fears aside, is it ethical to put the grizzly in an ecology with a predator who has "taken its place"? What wars would be fought by these two competitors? Would we need to protect the grizzlies from entrenched black bears? How would we do this?

Christopher Spatz said...

Thank you, Will, for this opportunity.

Predators are redefining our sense of wilderness. By the time the modern conservation movement got going on the first Earth Day, wolves were relegated in the lower 48 to Minnesota; cougars were driven into the deepest reaches of the western backcountry and grizzlies had even less – that influenced the collective notion that predators couldn’t live among us.

The idea that apex predators need the biggest, most remote places to thrive is being challenged every day. The Carpathian Mountains of Romania support wolves and brown bears among a human density higher than interior New England's. 5,000 cougars roam California, many on the edges of urban centers, an area and human population comparable to Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia combined. New Jersey now supports one of the densest black bear populations in North America. Cougars won’t make it to Central Park, but the promethean coyote has.

In my birth-state of New Jersey, I was astonished to see how casual suburban residents had become with bears wandering through neighborhoods and past school bus stops. Which is not to say bear conflicts don't happen. But the NJ Division of Fish & Wildlife - like California with its cougars - made the progressive effort to train municipal law enforcement officers to manage incipient bear conflicts while putting a ton of publicity into educating the public on how to live with bears. Surveys show that once the public becomes accustomed to living with big beasts, they like having them around, and understand something of their critical role in ecosystems. Minnesota has quietly managed for thirty years twice the number of wolves - with nary a peep until recently from the usual opposition - now under siege in all of the northern Rockies.

So, there is plenty of precedent for peacefulish coexistence with big predators. The crux for cougars is convincing the public along the leading edge of recolonization to let them stay, and, as Will suggested, convincing the game agencies, hunters and the livestock lobby, who view predators still as threats to game numbers and livelihoods, even in the face of ample data showing otherwise. That relationship is understandable, when agencies are funded in most states largely by hunting license fees and gear taxes, but I think a sea-change is under way.

Hunter numbers, representing about 5 % of the population, are on the decline. Biologists trained in ecosystem studies, not game management, are increasingly entering the field, many of them women. About half the presenters at a recent eastern coyote conference were women. The old guard isn’t giving up; cougar numbers are being pounded in nearly every state but California. Tester’s wolf rider to the budget bill is an unprecedented threat to the ESA. The announcement of the eastern cougar’s extinction, with no federal plan to repopulate the East with western surrogates, means Midwestern states will determine whether cougars can reclaim their former range.

As Missouri and Arkansas have already said no to breeding cougar populations, conservation organizations must train their efforts on Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, states with histories of managing bears and wolves, states with perhaps enough experience of living with wilderness in their backyards to welcome a little more.

Karen Lindsey said...

One more thing you said, Will, that I would like to add to--you said, "By just being out there, they’re more susceptible to being struck by one of the myriad miracles that invariably pop up on the trail—those epiphanies that change attitudes and foster compassion for our fellow creatures." You were talking about the many people who are spending time outdoors, who may not fully appreciate their surroundings. You are right. The natural environment is not a priority or even something thought about regularly for a lot of people. The fact that people are outside is important, though. The "epiphanies" that you mentioned do occur. It happened to me. I have not always been a wildlife biologist, nor was I particularly drawn to the outdoors in my childhood. Some years ago I worked in a very stressful job that was not related to the environment at all. I used to sit on my back porch after a long day at work to relax, and I began to notice the birds flitting among the trees. It occurred to me that it might be fun to put up a bird feeder, so I did. It drew so many different birds, that I decided to get a bird book. My first bird book was published, believe it or not, by Ortho, the garden chemical company. I was fascinated by their different looks and behaviors that I had never noticed before. I became an avid bird watcher and eventually pursued a career with the Fish and Wildlife Service.

It is important for us to continue to urge people of all ages to get outside and be in nature in whatever form is available to them. If they are out there enough, something will one day catch their eye.

WILD READ Team said...

All -

You may have noticed that blog spot was down for a while yesterday evening (in "read-only" mode). It appears that while the site was undergoing maintenance, several excellent posts added yesterday disappeared, including one from Chris Spatz of the Rewilding Foundation. We, the WILD READ team, wanted to clarify that no posts were removed, and this is an error that lies with the blogspot tool.

Sarah said...

To speak to the question Guy raises, and to very loosely paraphrase something Dr. George Shaller said during a talk here at the National Conservation Training Center back in January: if you love something (a place, a species, or any other natural resource) you must continually fight for it in order to keep it safe. The fight never ceases. Individual battles may be won or lost, but the fight never tuly ends. How does this relate to Guy's question about millions of Leopold-like transformational experiences? Well, to my way of thinking, just like the conservation battle never ends and we must continue to actively protect key resources, I think we ALL (the conservation enlightened as well as the yet-to-be enlightened)need repeated experiences that connect us to nature and keep us inspired. Having just moved from a very urban area to an area that still has lots of green space, I can feel something inside already re-charging - I didn't even realize how disconnected I had become. I think one can have a firm commitment to the cause, but without regular feeding, the Green Fire can fade. Have other WILD READers felt this way?

WILD READ Team said...

Good news! We've recovered the posts that disappeared while blogspot was down. Here is the first:

Hello all -

What a wonderful opportunity it is to have this kind of conversation - I appreciate Will's provocative questions and the thoughtful responses from other posters.

For my part, I would support a reintroduction. I aim to take as many lunch time walks as possible through the nearby woods and it is striking: no matter which direction I choose, I see deer. Every time. In the absence of large predators to regulate the population, our local woods have become a veritable deer factory. I was quite excited to hear a rumor that coyotes are moving into the area - if this is true, perhaps they will fill the niche that wolves once filled. My question is this: where true recovery isn't possible due to economic/political factors, is it okay to accept something a little less ecologically truthful, such as coyotes taking over what once belonged to wolves? Is it better than having no recovery? Or should we still not settle? And what happens if humans begin to respond to these new "replacement species" in the same way we responded to their predecessors?

Posted by Anonymous to America's WILD READ Discussion at May 11, 2011 9:25:00 PM EDT

WILD READ Team said...

Here is the second recovered comment:

I've been reading The Sespe Wild by Bradley Monsma, in which he writes about loss of the grizzly bear in southern California (a specifically adapted sub-species to drouth). The black bear now has filled its niche, for as well as it can understand. In this case, I'm not so sure how re-introducing the grizzly to the same area as black bears would work. Human fears aside, is it ethical to put the grizzly in an ecology with a predator who has "taken its place"? What wars would be fought by these two competitors? Would we need to protect the grizzlies from entrenched black bears? How would we do this?

Posted by Jared P. Burton to America's WILD READ Discussion at May 11, 2011 11:17:00 PM EDT

WILD READ Team said...

And here is the third recovered comment:

Thank you, Will, for this opportunity.

Predators are redefining our sense of wilderness. By the time the modern conservation movement got going on the first Earth Day, wolves were relegated in the lower 48 to Minnesota; cougars were driven into the deepest reaches of the western backcountry and grizzlies had even less – that influenced the collective notion that predators couldn’t live among us.

The idea that apex predators need the biggest, most remote places to thrive is being challenged every day. The Carpathian Mountains of Romania support wolves and brown bears among a human density higher than interior New England's. 5,000 cougars roam California, many on the edges of urban centers, an area and human population comparable to Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia combined. New Jersey now supports one of the densest black bear populations in North America. Cougars won’t make it to Central Park, but the promethean coyote has.

In my birth-state of New Jersey, I was astonished to see how casual suburban residents had become with bears wandering through neighborhoods and past school bus stops. Which is not to say bear conflicts don't happen. But the NJ Division of Fish & Wildlife - like California with its cougars - made the progressive effort to train municipal law enforcement officers to manage incipient bear conflicts while putting a ton of publicity into educating the public on how to live with bears. Surveys show that once the public becomes accustomed to living with big beasts, they like having them around, and understand something of their critical role in ecosystems. Minnesota has quietly managed for thirty years twice the number of wolves - with nary a peep until recently from the usual opposition - now under siege in all of the northern Rockies.

So, there is plenty of precedent for peacefulish coexistence with big predators. The crux for cougars is convincing the public along the leading edge of recolonization to let them stay, and, as Will suggested, convincing the game agencies, hunters and the livestock lobby, who view predators still as threats to game numbers and livelihoods, even in the face of ample data showing otherwise. That relationship is understandable, when agencies are funded in most states largely by hunting license fees and gear taxes, but I think a sea-change is under way.

Hunter numbers, representing about 5 % of the population, are on the decline. Biologists trained in ecosystem studies, not game management, are increasingly entering the field, many of them women. About half the presenters at a recent eastern coyote conference were women. The old guard isn’t giving up; cougar numbers are being pounded in nearly every state but California. Tester’s wolf rider to the budget bill is an unprecedented threat to the ESA. The announcement of the eastern cougar’s extinction, with no federal plan to repopulate the East with western surrogates, means Midwestern states will determine whether cougars can reclaim their former range.

As Missouri and Arkansas have already said no to breeding cougar populations, conservation organizations must train their efforts on Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, states with histories of managing bears and wolves, states with perhaps enough experience of living with wilderness in their backyards to welcome a little more.

Posted by Christopher Spatz to America's WILD READ Discussion at May 12, 2011 6:49:00 AM EDT

Emily M said...

I appreciate this opportunity to slow down and consider the perspectives of such a well-spoken and thoughtful group. I will be honest; I have been moved by these comments. Our world is so much more complicated compared to Leopold's time but I am heartened to know that there are thinkers out there of the same caliber. Thank you for the enlightenment and have yourselves a good Friday night.

Morgan said...

How does rewilding or reintroduction change the way we manage wildlife refuges or sanctuaries (as opposed to wilderness areas) that protect specific waterfowl or endangered species that could be adversely effected by the pressures of predation? I understand the ecological necessity but am always puzzled by the balancing act.

will stolzenburg said...

Though ultimately the philosophy and science of rewilding is best addressed by those who have formally proposed it, I suppose I can toss my two-cents in here as a journalist who has followed the ruckus with some particular interest. Part of the idea behind rewilding is to rejuvenate ailing ecosystems by restoring their missing pieces, which so often these days happen to be their top predators. In cases where a sensitive or endangered species is being sheltered in a refuge too small for these bigger pieces, shoehorning them out of principle is not the answer (for either the endangered species or the predator in question). The answer is to first enlarge the refuge, most of which are way too small for the long term safety of those they would protect.

As for the balancing act, I think it is puzzling, and should eternally remain that way, as a question that needs to be asked repeatedly whenever we contemplate tinkering with nature. The world’s wildlife landscape is replete with bomb craters and casualties brought by shortsighted introductions of creatures that don’t belong there. The fauna of the world’s oceanic islands—my most recent journalistic infatuation—have suffered enormously from the predations of rats and cats and other small predators accidentally or blithely introduced from the mainland. (And I assume I need not mention too the enormous role people have had in these annihilations.) This is a travesty not to be confused with rewilding, but to serve as a reminder of the twin powers of predation—as both an invigorating, life-giving force of nature, and as a potential blitzkrieg of grisly carnage, depending on ecological and historical context.

Sarah said...

Where is the "like" button? This is great discussion!

Anonymous said...

Hi,

I would not support reintroducing Mountain Lions to the fringes of human development. I would prefer to support measures that preserve and link potential Mountain Lion habitats and let the cat reintroduce itself over time.

Thank you,

Jesse

Anonymous said...

P.S. I hate to be a bug, but it seems like there were many insightful posts on this thread, however, if I am not mistaken, only one other person answered the specific question: would they support reintroduction of cougars into their "neck of the woods"?

Thank you,

Jesse

will stolzenburg said...

Thanks for that point, Jesse. I too would like to see the habitats linked, and the lions left to recolonize on their own—if those in charge would allow it. As I mentioned in the original post, the pioneering lions that are daring the eastern gauntlet are almost invariably getting shot. They’re getting shot because local police, who aren’t trained to handle 150-pound cats, are pulling the trigger out of unfounded fear that people will be killed. They’re getting shot because certain hunters discover them and simply wouldn’t think of passing up the opportunity. They’re getting shot because state wildlife agencies are typically slow to condemn such shooting because they prefer deer to cougars. It’s not a very flattering picture of our tolerance for letting wayward lions do the heavy lifting of recolonizing. If we want them back in our time, before the last of their habitat is destroyed by too many deer or people, we have to make it happen.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your reply, Will.

I am saddened to hear any account of an animal being shot. I live in Oakland, CA and I have had the luxury of seeing a cougar while walking along Sweeney Ridge, a former Nike Missle Site which is just several miles south of San Francisco. Despite being the kind of person that abides by a live and let live policy concerning even house spiders, I must admit that I actually reached into my pocket for my Swiss Army Knife upon seeing the lion. Perhaps the fear was unfounded, perhaps I too have succumbed to the magnification of attack stories. Or could it have been an instinct? Perhaps my mind's "hackles" were up - a simple reaction to a perceived threat. Although I was not close enough to see its eyes, the memory of seeing the soft cat sitting beside a water-filled rut, looking up at me, and then bounding silently off into the dense scrub, is etched upon my mental slate for good. I am grateful for that awesome experience. Although I returned to Sweeney Ridge many more times that summer, I never again walked that path with the graceful ease of thinking that I was the top predator.

Thank you for raising this topic. Your questions have brought up even more questions for me. How do we reconcile the fact that people have indeed been killed by Mountain Lions and that many humans are simply afraid of these top predators. What do you consider to be the geographic boundaries of one's "neck of the woods?". How close to human development would you place these cats? How many suburbanites, ranchers, hunters, and lawmen must one sit down with and how much time will it require to convey the complexities of modern ecology that have enabled us to understand that keystone species are critical to the survival of this planet's current ecosystem? What do you consider to be "in our time?" Considering the amount of time it took for Aldo Leopold to process the meaning of his "fierce green fire", how can we expect people who are not so insightful and focused as Leopold to react any sooner? Perhaps instead of reintroduction, we must come to terms with the magnitude of patience and discipline it may take for us to focus on controlling ourselves instead of other species. In the end, man's focus will always be on self-preservation, we are after all, animals too. When we recede, the Mountain Lion will expand, and our old fortresses will be overtaken by vines and rust. And the new necks of the woods will be the frontier where the beauty and tragedy of nature's experience will continue, at our doorsteps.

Thanks again for the thoughtful provocation,

Jesse Furrow
Oakland, CA

Macrobe said...

Jesse raises very real and pragmatic questions. Perhaps addressing them might offer bridges and opportunities to develop empathy and understanding, thereby, constructive solutions.