May 31, 2014
By Bennett Hall
One of the most enduring symbols of wild America, the wolf, is coming back across the West after being virtually eliminated from the lower 48 states.
Oregon State University ecologist Cristina Eisenberg believes that wolves and other large carnivores can continue to recolonize large parts of their historic range with a little help from humans.
She also believes that, without our assistance, some of North America’s most magnificent wild creatures could disappear forever.
Eisenberg’s new book from Island Press, “The Carnivore Way: Coexisting With and Conserving North America’s Predators,” argues that one of the keys to their survival is the ability to move across the landscape, both to respond to changing environmental conditions and to maintain genetic connections between isolated populations.
The book surveys the conservation status of six imperiled carnivore species — wolves, grizzly bears, lynx, wolverines, cougars and jaguars — and explores the beneficial influences these apex predators have on the ecosystems they inhabit, often helping to restore balance by keeping deer, elk and other herbivores in check. (Eisenberg’s work, along with that of pioneering colleagues such as William Ripple and Robert Beschta, is helping put OSU on the map in the emerging field of trophic cascades research.)
It also makes the case for a continental-scale conservation initiative that would make it easier for big predators to move up and down the Rocky Mountain region from Mexico to Alaska, the mega-corridor she calls the Carnivore Way.
Eisenberg points to the success of the gray wolf recovery effort in the northern Rockies as evidence that carnivore recovery is possible. Since their reintroduction in the mid-1990s, wolf numbers in the region soared to around 1,700. Many packs have recolonized territory on their own through natural dispersal, including eight established packs in Eastern Oregon.
“That wolf is a poster wolf,” Eisenberg said. “Right now he’s having a pretty happy ending.”
But that story is still being written and could change in a hurry, she warned.
With the lifting of federal protections for the gray wolf, hunting has made major inroads in some areas, threatening to reverse some of the animal’s hard-won progress in the contiguous United States.
“I feels like we’re in the process of undoing that and getting wolves to the lowest possible number,” Eisenberg said. “Those numbers are not enough to ensure the survival of the species.”
She favors an approach that could make it easier for wolves, bears and other large carnivores to coexist with people in an increasingly human-dominated landscape.
That doesn’t necessarily mean setting aside more land in nature preserves. Rather, it means things like building crossing structures to let wildlife get over or under major highways, establishing regional recovery zones where conservation is a major policy focus, and creating cross-border legal frameworks to coordinate planning efforts among states, provinces and nations.
It also means taking the concerns of people into account.
“I come from a ranching background and a hunting background, so I’m a real pragmatist when it comes to wolf conservation,” Eisenberg said. “You have to consider human needs.”
And it has to be more than simply lending a sympathetic ear.
She cites Oregon’s wolf management plan as an example. Arrived at through a highly collaborative process that included extensive input from ranchers, it includes financial assistance for non-lethal deterrents and the promise of a heads-up from wildlife managers when wolves are in their area.
“It’s not a perfect plan, but it’s one of the best,” Eisenberg said. “Wolves are going to thrive in Oregon if we let them.”
And if it can work here, it can work elsewhere. People, she believes, can find all sorts of new and innovative ways to help wolves and other big predators throughout the Carnivore Way — if that’s what we really want to do.
“I believe we can,” Eisenberg said. “But we need to decide as a society, on a regional basis, whether that’s a priority or not.”