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Predators are an important part of the ecosystem

Ever since the Massachusetts Bay Colony began paying a bounty on wolves in 1640, we have waged a war against predators. We've trapped them, used poison baits, or hunted them with guns. In the 1930s, wolves and cougars were being shot and poisoned throughout our national parks system. Between 1917 and 1952, Alaska paid bounties on 128,273 bald eagles, our National bird!

In the past two decades, however, something has happened, according to National Wildlife Magazine. As a nation, we have generally gone from persecuting predators to encouraging their survival, from loathing them to, in many cases, loving them. Conservationists can only cheer this long-overdue change in public perception and policy.

To biologists, a predator is an animal that kills and eats other animals. That definition encompasses an enormous number of species, including most birds, frogs, and even sponges. Cotton rats, which prey on quail eggs, are also predators. So are people, although most of us ordinarily leave the killing to others.

To many nonscientists, however, predation implies tooth and claw, blood and terror. Predators are the creatures from our nightmares that can terrorize people, menace children, and devour livestock. Instead of songbirds we think of the large carnivores -- wolves, mountain lions, the grizzly bears and eagles. Not so long ago, these creatures were considered harmful, if not downright evil.

By the 16th century, any flesh eating creature that competed with European fishermen, falconers, or gamekeepers had a price on its head! In England, bounties were placed on crows, hawks, cormorants, weasels, and other ravening birds and vermin. Over time in western culture, the predators acquired, through folk tales and fables, a reputation for greed, cunning, and viciousness.

Europeans brought this heritage to the New World, and this attitude stuck. By the mid-twentieth century, bounties and poisons had extracted a heavy toll on some species. Timber wolves disappeared in all states with the exception of Alaska and Minnesota. The red wolf was gone from the southeast, and the Mexican wolf no longer roamed the southwestern states. Grizzlies, once widely distributed, were confined to parts of Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho. Where poison baits were left, chiefly in the west, ferrets, martens, fishers, and badgers faded from the landscape.

Only in the 1930s did scientists begin to look closely at our predators. Eventually, many authorities concluded that not only did the predators have a legitimate place in nature -- they were an essential part of it.

A dramatic example of what happens when predators are eliminated from the environment occurred when the deer population of Arizona's Kaibob Plateau, which was set aside as a game preserve in 1906, skyrocketed. The Government authorities killed mountain lions, wolves, coyotes and the eagles, in a misguided effort to protect the deer. Instead, the deer population exploded, and then crashed, as the animals exhausted their food supply and they starved. Conservation pioneer Aldo Leopold concluded that the loss of predators had allowed the deer herd to grow beyond its ecological limits.

On the strength of biological studies, game managers' attitudes toward predators gradually changed. In the 1930s, the National Park Service -- which in the preceding decades had assiduously shot and poisoned wolves in Yellowstone National Park -- adopted a new policy to protect predators. In 1940, the killing of bald eagles was outlawed nationwide. Golden eagles were added to the protected list in 1962. Poison baits, once commonly used by the federal government to kill predators were banned in 1972. And although some local communities are still paying bounties on predators, all states have stopped.

Perhaps the ultimate indication of change came in the mid-1980s, when two pairs of captive-reared red wolves were released in North Carolina's Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. This event marked the first time that a predator extinct in the wild was restored to the wild.

Despite these strides, a battle still rages over the emotional issue of predator control. While the overall perception of killer species has improved, predators continue to feed on livestock, particularly on the western range. The problem is especially noticeable in Nevada, where predators, chiefly coyotes, cost ranchers the equivalent of half the total value of their sheep and lamb flocks each year. Although the Western sheepherders continue to trap, and upon their own lands, use poison on coyotes. Now, however, the public tends to disapprove.

Likewise, efforts to reintroduce animals where they have been eliminated often encounter great resistance. After a 50-year absence, wolves, captured in Canada, were reintroduced. Wolves recently reappeared on the west side of Montana's Glacier National Park. State officials, however, now fear that there is insufficient game to support both wolves and hunting sportsmen in the area. The officials also oppose a plan by the National Park Service to expand its reintroduction plans in other areas. This always results in fierce opposition by ranches in the area.

If, eventually, we can resolve these issues and come to terms with predators, it may well be evidence of rare human wisdom.