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1 October 2006 Coexisting with Large Carnivores: Lessons from Greater Yellowstone
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Coexisting with Large Carnivores: Lessons from Greater Yellowstone. Tim W. Clark, Murray B. Rutherford, and Denise Casey, eds. Island Press, Washington, DC, 2005. 290 pp., illus. $27.95 (ISBN 1597260053 paper).

Unlike a large number of recent books on large carnivore biology, Coexisting with Large Carnivores is about carnivore management—or, more accurately, management of people who interact with carnivores. Although the book covers some biology, its main focus is on longstanding problems in conserving wolves, cougars, and grizzly bears south of Yellowstone National Park (YNP) in Wyoming. The three-county area of Lincoln, Sublette, and Fremont is a 57,000-square-kilometer wildland of world-renowned conservation significance. Combined with YNP, it is considered one of the most important temperate-zone ecosystems on the planet. It is inhabited by all of the North American large carnivores, as well as one of the most diverse arrays of ungulates found in the western United States.

As editors Tim W. Clark, Murray B. Rutherford, and Denise Casey explain, the problem centers on a clash between the “old West” and the “new West.” The “old West” view has long supported removing carnivores from the landscape, mainly to establish livestock but also, later, to reduce human hunters' competition for game. In the old West, agriculture, mining, logging, hunting, and other resource extraction industries were predominant. The “new West” view, created by an influx of immigrants from other regions, values primarily a nonextractive economy featuring scenery, wildlife observation, outdoor recreation, and open space. To this group, large carnivores symbolize wilderness and a healthy ecosystem.

Finding common ground between these two positions has been nearly impossible, and much of the discussion lacks reasonableness. The institutions in place—both state and federal—have struggled. Thus, the single overarching goal of Clark and colleagues' book is to break this logjam using an enlightened approach that involves more people, taking part more equally, in decisionmaking. This places a huge responsibility for administrative restructuring on the agencies that manage wildlife.

Wolves, cougars, and grizzly bears are special wildlife management cases. All of them live over large areas, have low population density, are hard to count, and kill other animals people value. Data gathering is difficult and expensive; the data that are available are often misused, and in other cases dismissed because some people claim the studies are rigged. Wyoming is also unique. With its vast open spaces and the smallest human population of any state, Wyoming is the way the West once was, some say (Wilson 1997). Rugged individualism is admired and outsiders are not, and the government is disliked.

Coexisting with Large Carnivores covers each carnivore separately and then offers common solutions. Each carnivore has its own special set of issues. For cougars, which are normally shy and reclusive, it was an especially visible family outside of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, that touched off the debate. A female and her three kittens were remarkably visible in a rock cave a short distance from town. Over 15,000 people saw them during a 42-day period. At about the same time, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department raised the harvest quota of cougars in the area. When questioned, the department had trouble explaining the rationale for the change, especially because no one knew how many cougars there were. Public meetings proved to be ineffective, as it seemed the course of action was predetermined, so the meeting was perceived as a presentation of information rather than solicitation of input. To justify the approach, the department stated that management of cougars should not be based on public opinion. The end result? People became alienated, opposition hardened, a foundation supporting cougars sprang up, and overall trust was lost.

Grizzly bears present similarly intractable issues. According to one estimate, only 25 to 50 bears were living outside YNP in 1970. In 1975, bears were listed as threatened and given protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), an action that stockmen claimed would bankrupt them. Since the listing, the population has grown and conflicts have increased. Livestock have been killed, sometimes in substantial numbers, and occasionally people are attacked, injured, and even killed. The disposal of garbage is regulated, which some people consider government meddling. The future availability of key natural foods for bears is debated, and any reduction would increase bears' consumption of garbage. Three counties have passed ordinances banning grizzlies. Regulations on how stock-killing grizzlies are dealt with are unsatisfactory to livestock producers (not enough lethal control), and some grazing allotments have been lost.

Fearing that “rewilding” initiatives are designed to “kick people off the land,” resistance movements have formed. Conservationists, on the other hand, believe that recovery has just begun and that the bear needs more room to roam to secure its population. The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is planning to remove ESA protection for the grizzly bear, a move that is opposed by some and embraced by others.

Wolves were reintroduced to YNP under the ESA in 1995 and 1996. Since then the population has expanded into areas outside YNP. Some livestock have been killed. A private group compensates producers for verified losses, but not for suspected losses or for the difficulties of having wolves around. Concern has arisen about the impacts of wolves on elk and moose populations. Hunting enthusiasts have formed groups in all three states that make up YNP (Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming) requesting wolf control or complete removal of wolves. Wyoming's wolf management plan—a requirement to delist—was rejected by the USFWS. Wyoming sued and lost and now contemplates its next move. Delisting has been delayed indefinitely.

So what to do? Clark and colleagues recommend three main courses of action: (1) working from the bottom up rather than from the top down; (2) changing the perceived “meaning” of carnivores, moving away from their historic and symbolic associations; and (3) rearranging the structure of wildlife management agencies to reflect changing human values. If the book can be criticized for anything, it is that it is repetitious, though perhaps intentionally so, to convey the main message: Involve more people in real decisionmaking—don't just inform them of the decisions. Their second recommendation deals with ridding carnivores of the baggage loaded on them by the government and the environmentalists. Finally, Clark and his coauthors criticize the current emphasis in Wyoming wildlife management on consumptive and traditional uses of wildlife, the command-and-control administrative structure, and the inordinate weight given to expert opinion.

Would these recommendations work? I am most familiar with wolves, which seem to be uniquely hated. I have seen the anger and emotion of local people. What emerges from my experience is the value of one-on-one contact. But who has the time? Just as important, when talking one-on-one, you need to be very good at what you do, which means being knowledgeable about details, articulate, and able to roll with the punches. This will get you a modicum of respect, but the skills come only from time on the job. One summer's work will barely get the locals familiar with your name. You have to know as much about the animals as they do. So even if money were available to hire more people, few would have the skill and fortitude to confront the controversy. The USFWS and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department have some veterans whom the public trusts, a vital point that the book only lightly touches on. How we can get more people who function like this is still unanswered.

One of the most successful programs I am involved with is horseback riding into the big-game hunting camps that dot the boundary of YNP in the fall to talk about wolves. Although I have changed few minds, I have opened lines of communication, reaching out deep in the wilderness far from government offices. On a one-week trip I can visit only two or three hunter camps, as they are widely spaced. Carnivore recovery and management will take a lot of work indeed. This book charts the course; its lessons need wide acceptance and implementation.

Reference cited

  1. M. A. Wilson 1997. The wolf in Yellowstone: Science, symbol, or politics? . Society and Natural Resources 10:453–469. Google Scholar

Notes

[1] Douglas W. Smith (e-mail: doug_smith@nps.gov) is leader of the Wolf Project, Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190.

Douglas W. Smith "Coexisting with Large Carnivores: Lessons from Greater Yellowstone," BioScience 56(10), (1 October 2006). https://doi.org/10.1641/0006-3568(2006)56[848:LWLC]2.0.CO;2
Published: 1 October 2006
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