Sunday, February 7, 2010

Stella’s Book Review: "Where the Wild Things Were" by William Stolzenburg

When I heard about this book, I raced out to purchase it. Predators, or carnivores, are my favorite group of animals and I have been passionate about them since I was a little girl. I eagerly dug into this book and was utterly absorbed by it.

As suburbanites, many of you may be thinking, “Why should I care about predators?” Well, there is a very good reason why. Predators are a keystone or umbrella species. Protect them, and the vast habitats needed to sustain them, and you protect everything else that lives within that habitat, including birds. The very presence of predators also helps to maintain a healthy balance within the ecosystem.

One classic example of this can be found in Yellowstone National Park. Once wolves disappeared from the park, the ecosystem began to suffer. With no major predators to fear, elk and deer began to congregate, eat and demolish anything they could reach. Willow and aspen trees began to die out as these ungulates browsed them down to nothing. Returning wolves to the park has caused prey animals to disperse and spread out more, which is allowing these trees to now flourish. Browsed out riverbeds are once again lush and green. Where there are trees and shrubs, there are nesting birds. See the connection?

Wolves also provide food for other wildlife. Coyotes, ravens, bears, magpies and eagles have all benefited from wolf kills. The presence of wolves has helped bring down the coyote population, which was exploding and suppressing smaller predator populations. With the reduction of coyotes, these other predators, such as fishers, wolverines, bobcats, martens and badgers are increasing in number, leading to a more balanced ecosystem.

It is truly all a balancing act, and one that is carefully intertwined. Take one component out of the equation and watch an entire ecosystem begin to decline.
In other places, dominant predators keep the lower tier predators (or “mesopredators”) under control. Animals such as raccoons, red foxes and domestic and feral cats and dogs can decimate local bird populations. A study done in the chaparral country of California near San Diego is a classic example. In the study areas where there were no coyotes (which happen to be the natural top predator in this area) to keep red foxes, raccoons and cats under control there was a dearth of nesting birds. Further in the canyons, where coyotes flourished, the birds were thriving. Why? Coyotes were able to control the populations of the mesopredators, leading to less predation on the nests.

As a larger animal, coyotes tend to prey on small mammals rather than nesting birds and eggs. In another example, in the Dakotas, ducks nests were being decimated by red foxes until the 70’s when a ceasefire was declared in the war on coyotes. The results? An increase in coyotes helped control the fox population just by their very presence. This in turn led to a 15% increase in nesting success. Stories like these abound from all over the United States.

Many people fear predators. They think the only good predator is a dead one. This is the farthest thing from the truth. As the above examples illustrate, these animals are essential to our natural world. Without these powerful and vital creatures, entire landscapes can change for the worse. Eliminating such an important component will create ecological havoc.

There are others who enjoy predators, but in a controlled situation, such as a zoo. As much as they enjoy the thought of mountain lions, bears and wolves, they would rather have them “safely” tucked away in a zoo or wildlife center.

For many people, my self included, predators fill more than just a niche in the ecosystem. They symbolize the last of the world’s last great wilderness areas and are a reminder of days gone by, when magnificent wildlife roamed the plains, forests and mountains of our country. They fill us with awe, fear and also a sense of peace. Even if all we ever do is tiptoe to the edge of nature and peer in, the knowledge that these wonderful creatures are still living in our wilderness areas stirs our blood and nourishes the wildness in our souls. Unfortunately, they are not the masters of their own destiny, we are their caretakers and it is up to us to ensure that they will have a future. Wildlife should have a chance to flourish in its natural habitat and not struggle to eke out some sort of desperate existence in a tiny patch of remaining wilderness or to just languish in some zoo, a sad reminder of what used to be.

Every animal, big or small, deserves a chance to live, and to do that the way they were meant to, with dignity and freedom. But this is not just about what is morally right. This is about what is vital to the survival of our natural world. Predators are especially important to our ecosystem. Please read this important book. With wildlife under siege in our modern world, it is vital that everyone know what we will be missing should we eliminate large predators from our planet. This book is a must read for anyone interested in our natural world.

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