Thinking like a Mountain in 2021

“In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second, we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy: how to aim a steep downhill shot is always confusing. When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable slide-rocks.

We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes - something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean a hunter’s paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.“ (Leopold, 129)

This is a short passage from the essay “Thinking like a Mountain”, written by famous ecologist Aldo Leopold in 1944. The essay itself explores the importance of thinking on an ecosystem scale, and the important role that predators play within said ecosystem. In Leopold’s time, mass killing of predators such as wolves, mountain lions, and bears was a way of life in much of the United States and elsewhere. The manifested destiny, born from European colonization and spurred by West Coast gold fever had stretched a new facet of humanity across this landmass in just a couple of centuries, and the inevitable conflict and intense conquest of the environment was in full force.

In those days, many of those people not living within the limits of this country’s large urban settings had an antagonistic user attitude when it came to wildlife and natural resources. Nature, and the diversity of life forms contained therein, were anywhere on a spectrum between worthless to extremely valuable in monetary terms. There were even a few sworn enemies thrown in there to keep it interesting. Large carnivores were often viewed as the bane of rural existence, demonized and persecuted to the point of near extinction. They were removed or restricted from their native habitat to the point where most of North America’s mightiest carnivores were nearing extinction, and the famous California Grizzly featured on the state’s flag no longer existed in that state at all.

Luckily enough, the ignorance of the past has since fallen off in the face of ecosystem science and a better understanding of the interconnected relationships of the land and its creatures. We as a nation have come a long way since the unmitigated slaughter of our landscapes’ most important wildlife, or so it would be hoped. However, the killing of our native carnivores is still happening at a dangerous rate, in the form of predator-killing contests which remain active and attended to this day.

Killing contests are nothing more than what their name suggests. Participants spend a certain amount of time hunting, trapping, and killing as many of a specific species, or multiple species, as possible. Typically, the subject of these “hunts” are the few remaining predators left in our habitats, species such as foxes, coyotes, and bobcats. The more corpses brought in — the largest quarry,  or the smallest — the better chance the participant has of winning the cash prizes offered as part of this carnage. In a matter of a few days, contests can eliminate astonishing numbers of these incredibly important animals from an area, with no remorse, and only flimsy arguments to justify this killing.

Proponents of these activities say that predators such as coyotes are a threat to livestock, and that removing them from the area removes a hazard to poultry and livestock and a serious economic threat to farmers and ranchers. However, we know that this simply isn’t true. While predation of livestock by wild animals does exist in some areas, according to a 2017 report by the US Department of Agriculture, this predation only accounted for 2% of mortality in adult cattle, and 11% in calves. Similar insignificant numbers have been reported for sheep as well. But, where it does occur, we know that the targeted removal of offending individual predators, as well as non-lethal deterrent techniques, are both effective ways to address it.

We also know that killing predators within an area does not necessarily protect livestock; in fact, there is almost never any lasting effect on the population of carnivores at all. Coyotes in particular are very good at maintaining a balance in their population densities within an area. When a population is heavily exploited (hunted, trapped, or removed), a temporary vacuum is left by the absence of the animals removed. This artificial vacancy does not remain empty for long. Transient individuals will find their way into the vacant area,  and studies have suggested that reproductive rates for coyotes will increase, thus filling the void.

Supporters of these killing contests also make the argument that eliminating predators will increase game species populations. Again, this assertion not supported by scientific research. Predators play an incredibly important management role in prey species. Without predators, prey species populations can explode, over utilizing resources and spreading disease until their numbers collapse. One of the most dramatic illustrations of this was the Kaibab Plateau deer reports from the 1930’s. It was one of the first times Western scientists identified and documented the risk of overpopulation in game species. Much of the United States is currently missing that dominant predator presence which historically was held by wolves and mountain lions. Now, bobcats, and the steady spread of coyotes, has given the term “meso-predator release” new meaning. Today, smaller predators are filling the role in the ecosystems once filled by their larger, now distant, counterparts. The presence of these “meso-predators” prevents the unhealthy overabundance of prey, but is still not enough in many cases. Leopold himself wrote “I have watched the face of many a newly wolf-less mountain, and seen the south facing slopes wrinkle with a maze of new deer trails, first to anemic desuetude and then to death.” (Leopold, 130) He understood the pressure that an unchecked prey population could have on an ecosystem.

These killing contests are an antiquated activity despised by conservationists and hunters alike. They are devoid of any positive wildlife management implications. They are fueled by an attitude and logic that has long been discredited by science and society.

Many states have already passed laws banning these sorts of activities, and it is time Virginia joined them. The future of this planet depends on humans finding ways to sustainably coexist with our environment and its creatures. In banning killing contests, we will take a major step in rectifying our historically narrow-minded and unproductive attitudes toward predators, and advance a scientifically-based approach to  ecological protection and the conservation of wildlife species.

“In wildness is the salvation of the world. Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf, long known among mountains, but seldom perceived among men.” (Leopold, 133)

Support the Wildlife Center of Virginia, and many other conservation-minded individuals and organizations by making your opinions know during the public comment period which is underway, through July 30, 2021. The Department of Wildlife Resources is asking for public input on the proposal to prohibit predator killing contests in Virginia. The proposed regulation will not change the laws or regulations what allow the hunting of individual animals, or the removal of those predators actually causing harm to livestock, poultry or property. It will simply eliminate the wholesale slaughter of predators which is motivated by cash prizes. Let the state’s wildlife managers know how you feel about these killing contests. Click here to stand up for our ecosystems, and the carnivores which are so important to them.

Leopold, Aldo, 1886-1948. (1949). A Sand County almanac, and Sketches here and there. ©1949.