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WITH OR WITHOUT PREDATORS

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When Entrusted to my Care was first published in 1966, Grand MacEwan raised conservation issues not yet discovered by the media and public. These concerns included dwindling natural resources, water conservation, air quality, industrial wastes, animal rights, soil fertility, and too rapid development. Entrusted To My Care
Copyright 1966 Western Producer Prairie Books
243 pages,
ISBN 0-88833-175-4.

Nothing in the entire field of wildlife conservation is capable of evoking as much controversy as a pronouncement about predators. The mere mention of coyotes, crows, hawks or eagles can start the debate. Should these creatures be destroyed to ensure larger numbers of game birds or should predators be seen as cogs in Nature's balance wheel, sufficiently important to be spared?

Those people making a case against predators and seeking an open season on them, begin by pointing at farm losses from the poultry yard and end up by mentioning the destruction of game birds and eggs. Rural people know very well that some hawks and some owls will raid the poultry runs. And when ranchers lose cattle to a marauding bear or a farmer finds a grizzly in the pigpen, it is quite understandable that an armed hunt for the express purpose of eliminating the brute will follow.

Hunters who see no necessity for predators in animal society may cite the experience on Queen Charlotte Islands, off the west coast of British Columbia. There, the wild things have retained their vigor, practically in the absence of predators. Some black bears exist but no wolves, no coyotes and no cougars will be found. And game animals have become very numerous without encountering self-destruction.

Deer, introduced in 1912, multiplied to such an extent that a year-round open season was provided for the benefit of residents; local people were actually permitted to take deer of either sex, any age, at any season, and numbers appeared to be maintained. Elk introduced in 1928 did well, likewise beavers and red squirrels taken there about 1944. Everything seemed to work to general satisfaction, with residents and game animals living beyond the reach of wolves and cougars.

But in opposition to conclusions likely to be drawn from the Queen Charlotte Islands situation is the often-repeated experience in the Kaibab Forest of Northern Arizona. Over an area of slightly more than a thousand square miles, the deer population in the year 1905 was estimated at 4,000. That was not good enough. Observers said the forest could carry seven times as many deer, provided, of course, the predators were destroyed.

Accordingly, war was declared on the coyotes, wolves and mountain lions. In the 10-year period, 1907 to 1917, some 600 mountain lions were killed and between 1907 and 1939, over 7,000 coyotes and wolves ended the same way. Deer numbers responded explosively, rose to 40,000 in 1918 and 100,000 in 1923. But by this time, the grazing was largely ruined and deer were showing signs of malnutrition. More than 50,000 were reported to have died in two succeeding winters. With lasting injury to the carrying capacity of the forest, deer numbers continued to fall until, in 1939, the population was down to 10,000, all struggling to find enough feed on the impoverished range. Better it would have been, said the balance-of-nature exponents, to have allowed natural forces to exercise their own controls through predators than to have created an artificial order in which the deer population would multiply and then deteriorate through starvation.

It has been interpreted as an illustration of the folly of attempting to destroy any species. Time and again man has solved one problem by destroying some pest, only to create two or more new ones. Nobody expected that spraying to control spruce budworm in the Northern New Brunswick forest would seriously deplete fish life in the Miramichi River and lead scientists to look for methods of transplanting insects as a means of restoring the natural fauna in that famous salmon stream.

Here was more proof of how Nature seems to resent interference and react with subtle revenge. Charles Darwin, many years ago, warned that changes in the natural order can be far-reaching and dangerous. His followers illustrated by describing how an increase in the number of old maids in a community can affect the size of the clover seed crop. More spinsters would account for a bigger population of cats; more cats would result in fewer mice; a reduction in mice would mean less raiding upon bee hives and hence more bees; finally, an increase in bees would explain the better fertilization of clover flowers and a heavier crop of seed.

There are other reasons for hesitation in destroying predators. The report of one Fish and Game Association annual meeting noted that rural and city members split on a motion calling for open season shooting of hawks and owls. The farming people were showing a stronger appreciation for the value of predators in holding crop pests in check. Kerry Wood of Red Deer-widely known naturalist and author-told a Calgary audience that a weasel will kill about a thousand mice a year. Assuming that each farm mouse is capable of doing 25 cents of damage in a year, the weasel could have an annual value of $250. The speaker could not understand why a farmer would destroy a $250 asset in order to recover a one dollar skin.

Most hawks are valuable and even though they take an occasional barnyard fowl, they more than pay for the damage by consuming gophers, mice and grasshoppers. Taking, for example, the red-tailed hawk-that marvel of the summer skies whose performance gives the impression the skillful fellow could soar indefinitely on motionless wings-a study of stomach contents showed 65 percent rodents in the diet and 10 percent insects. And as a check on rodents and insects, Swainson's hawk has a still better record. It's also true that the short-winged hawks or accipiters-goshawks, Coopers and sharp-shinned - are more for small birds and the goshawk which comes out of the North in fall and winter, likes to vary its diet with tender game birds.

In crows, as in hawks, the impartial observer will see both good and bad. The hunter and sportsman has reason for regarding the crow as a destroyer of game bird eggs and therefore a menace. But the same despised crow makes a positive contribution by consuming insects.

Agricultural people have seen what can happen when pest multiplication goes unchecked. They know what mice can do to an unthreshed crop remaining in the fields over winter. Western farmers remember the losses due to mice in the winters of 1951-52 and 1959-60. In those seasons, farmers wished for more of Nature's mousetraps on wings or legs. "If they'll just concentrate on my swathed grain and feast on mice," said one farmer in the latter winter, "I vow I'll never shoot coyotes again."

A gestation period of about three weeks and litters of from five to 10 young ones give every mouse a staggering biological potential. Assuming only four litters per year, six young ones to a litter, half females and no deaths from predators or anything else for two yean, the produce from an original pair could reach the astounding total of 33,000,000 mice. In five years, mice in a community would not have standing room. Even under ordinary meadow conditions, mouse and mole populations are likely to be in the hundreds per acre. Thus the foundation stock for an explosive increase is ever present. And a mouse's appetite seems to be in keeping with Its fecundity.

Most pests possess impressive capacity for reproduction. The 24 rabbits imported to Australia in 1859 became the forebears of the troublesome population running as high as 500,000,000 in recent years. And those Australian rabbit pioneers were probably no more prolific than unchecked rabbit stock in other parts of the world would be.

Clearly, there are two sides to the predator issue. Perhaps Jack Miner, founder of the Jack Miner Bird Sanctuary close to Ontario's north shore of Lake Erie, was right in adopting an intermediate position in the controversy. The famous wildlife conservationist who died in 1944, told how his views changed. Early in life, he shot game of all kinds, including the now extinct passenger pigeons-hunted for market as well as for the family table. But the wrong in wholesale killing became clear and ultimately he refused to shoot anything except predators and then only moderately. Although he did not begrudge the hunters a reasonable share of game, for his part "one Bob White sitting on a rail, sounding his beautiful notes, brings more pleasure and more cheer to more people than 25 birds in a bloody gamesack."

Jack Miner did not totally accept or reject the "balance of nature" theories. He did not agree that any of the predatory birds should be exterminated but be believed they might well be kept down to the same extent that predator man reduces the game bird population. In other words, man who has upset the natural balances, has a duty to try to restore them. But that Jack Miner's heart was in sparing rather than killing, there could be no doubt. His greatest joy was in planting trees and throwing "feed and kindness to the birds."

But when all has been said and done, there is every assurance that the predators will remain, regardless of who wins the argument about their respectability and value. The conviction grows that the millions of dollars spent on predator control has been largely wasted; the animal kinds chosen for destruction have generally been as plentiful at the end of a bounty program as at the beginning. After many years of attempted coyote control by means of bounties, poisons and professional hunters, coyote numbers have seemed to be practically unchanged. In one western province, where a million dollars went for bounties on various predator species over the years, a government biologist admitted the net result was negligible.

There will still be those who would kill all the predators but public opinion has shifted to the broader view, that predators are not all bad and are needed. Hawks, rather suddenly, became respectable, making it safe for a person to acknowledge a liking for them. Most provinces now have legislation making it illegal to kill hawks, owls and eagles, unless they are caught molesting domestic animals.

It's too bad there is so much conflict and killing in Nature's community. But it's a time-tested organization and most races appear to have places to fill in the complex order. At least man, who forms but a small part of the animal kingdom and is one of the meat-hungry predators, should not be so presumptuous as to condemn any of his fellow-creatures to extermination. Wicked wolves swooping down upon defenceless bunny-rabbits to devour them, become the hated villains in the bedtime story. The rest of the story should be told, that the predator wolf was merely carrying out an inherited purpose and, furthermore, it was not the wolf or hawk or bear that cut down the cedars of Lebanon or ruined the soils around the Mediterranean or destroyed the passenger pigeons or threatened to drain away the oil and gas reserves of the ages in a relatively short space of time.


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