20 Dec 2008, 11:09am
Predators Wildlife Management
by admin

Large predators: them and us!

Dr. Valerius Geist, PhD. 2008. Large predators: them and us! Fair Chase. Vol. 23, No. 3. pp. 14-19

Full text [here]

Selected excerpts:

We pay close attention to large predators. We do so because we evolved as prey. It was our ancient fate to be killed and eaten, and our primary goal to escape such. Our instincts are still shaped that way.

There is thus a reason why the bloody carnage on our highways is a mere statistic, but the mauling of a person by a grizzly is news. It’s not only that so many fossilized remains of our ancient ancestors are meals consumed by large predators in secluded caves or rock niches, but also that we speciated like large herbivores. That is, our pattern and timing of forming species, of adapting to landscapes, mimics and coincides with that of deer, antelope or cattle, but not that of large carnivores. And that despite our fondness for meat, despite “man the hunter”, and despite the fact that at least one species of humans, Neanderthal man, grew into a super predator.

Large herbivores readily form new species and show a pattern of strong speciation from the equator to the poles, terminating in the cold, glaciated latitudes as “grotesque ice age giants”. Large predators do not. They evolve no grotesque ice age giants comparable to the woolly mammoths among elephants, or the massive-antlered giant deer among deer, the giant sheep, or anything else for that matter as grotesque as ourselves. Is there a more grotesque animal than man? And we did it twice, once as Neanderthal and once as Modern Man. Moreover, herbivores readily form dwarf species under poor ecological conditions such as in rainforests, deserts or predator-free oceanic islands, and they differentiate rapidly into new subspecies as they disperse geographically into new habitats. Predators form no dwarfs, on islands or otherwise. Nor do they segregate sharply into swarms of regional subspecies. Large herbivores do that - and so do humans. Also, our bursts of speciation coincide in time with those of African antelope.

Humans grow small canine teeth, not the large combat-canines typical of apes. Canine reduction is a signature of a common anti-predator adaptation, called the “selfish herd”. In such unrelated individuals cluster together in the open as protection against predation. Herbivores form “selfish herds”, predators do not. Herbivores may “evolve away” huge combat-canines, as shown not only by us, but by deer, horses, rhinos and half a dozen extinct families of large mammalian plant eaters. Carnivores reduce no canines!

Our ancient herbivore root is still reflected in our taste preferences, for when we eat meat we flavor it liberally with plant poisons (pepper, chili, sage, thyme, curry etc). Apparently meat does not really taste “good” till it tastes of “plant”! We also have the herbivore’s craving for salt. So, watch what you reach for next time you get a sizzling steak!

While we may have evolved as hunters, we did not evolve like predators. …

We are great killers, of course, but note: we do not kill like predators with tooth and claws. We kill with tools specialized as weapons. That is unique. And so is the mental and emotional psychic structure that flows from that. With weapon in hand we are brave, daring, dangerous. Without it we may be not. And predators sense that. United with others in bravery we become frightening, especially since we can do something no other primate can. We can mimic sounds and adjust such to the occasion. We can roar, growl and scream, and match our voices to the occasion, to the predator confronted. And mimicking sound is the biological root of language and music. It came first, courtesy predation! …

When our lineage came “out of Africa” it spread westward along the coast of Asia and colonized Australia, repeatedly, some 60,000 years ago. That could only have been done by people possessing boat technology, and it happened quite rapidly. And then it took almost 50,000 years before North America was colonized!

What prevented us from entering North America in that enormous time span?

Humans even entered South America before North America, judging from the antiquity of archeological dates. The undisputed fact is that human colonization coincided with the collapse of the unique North American native megafauna beginning about 12,900 years ago. As long as North America’s native megafauna remained intact all through the late Pleistocene, there was no human settlement of North America. However, once the megafauna crumbled there were repeated humans entries. Moreover, other members of the Siberian fauna also moved into the ecological vacuum here, such as grizzly bear, gray wolf, wolverine, elk, and moose.

How could this be?

North America’s megafauna differed substantially from that of Eurasia and Africa. It was characterized by a multitude of highly specialized, often gigantic predators and prey. Moreover, the fossil record shows a surprising amount of crushed, broken, but healed bones in the predators, as well as excessive wear and breakage of teeth. Injuries in current African predators are minimal by comparison. North American native predators were thus confronted by herbivores that were exceedingly able to defend themselves. Not only the broken bones, but the very specializations of the predators speak of the demanding life they experienced. So do the extreme anti-predator specializations of the herbivores. North America during the Pleistocene was thus a predator hell-hole compared to Eurasia or Africa! …

Our abilities to deal with African and Eurasian predators were thus likely much too limited to deal with the full array of native North American predators. They kept the continent free of humans for nearly 50,000 years, till – for reasons still disputed – America’s megafauna declined, and over about 6000 years went largely extinct. Even then the increase in humans, as tracked by the number of hearth discovered per 1000 years, increases very slowly. Moreover, it is inversely related to the number of genera of megafauna still alive. It thus took some 6,000 years of hard, very dangerous living by human colonizers to create in North America a landscape reasonably safe for people.

The few remaining native American species show to this day the predation pressure of the past. White-tailed deer, great experts at hiding and rapid escapes, are totally incompetent food competitors and do very poorly in the presence of Old World deer – which are food competitors! Ditto for mule deer and elk. Pronghorn still run faster than anything on Earth! And native predators such as black bear, cougar, coyotes, and raccoons are thriving in our presence, compared to their Siberian counterparts which migrated into North America in the Recent, the grizzly bear, gray wolf and wolverine. The Americans are very adaptable, the ex-Siberians are not. It’s about the ex-Siberians we happen to worry most. …

The history of wolves is deeply troubling, even though to all appearances grizzly bears, black bears and cougars are more dangerous, having killed far more people in recent North America. In order to understand what wolves can do, provided the conditions are right, we have to go to Eurasia. It’s conditions that count! We must know these well as we have already enacted legislation here and in the European Union that are based on false biological premises. And such arose from errors in scholarship. And we must know these errors, as the prestige of science and scholarship are again and again invoked to push flawed conclusions about wolves as well as flawed legislation. …

And it’s not only the central European experience that is sobering, so is research into this matter in Russia, Finland, France, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, India and Korea. Tragedy resulted again and again from political systems that disarmed and disenfranchised their citizens. Wolves exploited that helplessness. Compared to bears, wolves were hated and with excellent reason. Not only did they destroy livestock in the fields, but they found means and ways to break into stables in villages and kill the precious family cow or sheep indoors. Children are a primary target of wolves. Rabies was not uncommon, and a rabid wolf running amuck biting horses, cattle, people and in modern days machinery in rapid succession was a death angel if there ever was one! …

We may decry today the extermination of wolves in the American West, but there was reason for it, and modern studies confirm how efficient wolves can become in killing off livestock. And that confirms the European historical experience. Even in modern times Wolves have been a trouble to disarmed populations, most recently in areas where they are again re-colonizing such as in Finland, Sweden and even modern Germany. Ditto in New Mexico where wolves are legally protected! Historically there is no place where wolves and people have coexisted, except where wolves were kept under strict control and were hunted, and prey was, consequently, abundant.

And that’s one lesson from the North American experience we need to take very seriously. Modern research has shown that wolves switch to alternative prey species only very slowly, and that they do not target humans as long as there is prey or livestock between them and us. Moreover, wolves targeting humans and urban coyotes targeting children do so in the same manner. Surprising? Hardly! Surprising is only the argument that wolves pose no danger to people, a myth that has killed here highly educated persons that trusted science. It is timely to reassess conservation of large predators and make such safe for them and us.

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