Natural balance?




During the 1980s there was a movement in the conservation world to allow the “natural balance” of nature to take its course in the management of large mammals in western North America. This natural balance was supposed to play out throughout the Rocky Mountains, and big game herds and predators would achieve a natural balance. It was assumed that, under such a management regime, there would be significant numbers of both predators and ungulates (deer, elk, antelope) in major protected areas like the mountain parks in Canada and in Yellowstone National Park, and across the landscape of the Rockies.

Under this management model, Canadian and United States wildlife managers stopped managing large predators like wolves, cougars and bears and protected them with outright closures of hunting or severely restricted hunting seasons. Additionally, in Yellowstone National Park, wolves were re-introduced into that system. These changes coincided with a major increase in grizzly bear numbers. At the same time, other predators such as black bears and cougars have either stayed at high population levels or expanded in numbers. In the northern Rockies, from northern Montana through to Jasper National Park, there are now a minimum of 4600 grizzly bears, a number beyond our wildest imaginations 25 years ago. Populations of the other large predators are at similar levels. None of the predators in the Rockies are at risk now. We have effectively shifted from a “predator poor system” in the 1970s to a “predator rich system” in 2015.

Three decades after this experiment was initiated we now have data that allow us to understand how unsuccessful this experiment has really been.

The results are not even remotely comparable to the expected result. Many hoped this experiment would result in the achievement of a world-class game-rich environment, with healthy grassland communities, large numbers of ungulates and significant numbers of predators; however, the opposite has occurred.



The fundamental error was this. We were told that predators would kill the old and the weak. This is incorrect. They kill the old, the weak, the strong, and the young. Recent research has found that ungulate populations cannot support the combined impact of predation on calves by wolves, grizzlies, black bears, cougars and coyotes. It turns out that bears are amazingly efficient at killing elk and moose calves in their first few weeks of life. This is followed by more losses to wolves and other predators during the summer, fall and winter. The end result has been that very few calves (less than 15 per 100 cows) make it through their first winter to replace the older cows that are dying of old age or are being killed by wolves. The end result has been a massive decline in ungulate populations throughout the Rocky Mountains, both inside and outside parks, not due to predators killing adults, but due to the killing of calves.

In Yellowstone National Park, the “northern elk herd” has declined from 19,000 animals in 1995, when wolves were introduced, to about 4900 this last winter. However, most of the remaining elk actually live in Montana, at lower elevations, and not in the park. It would appear that there are now fewer than 1000 elk remaining in the park portion of that herd. And (this is critical), recruitment remains well below the 25 calves per 100 cows, which is required for the herd to maintain itself.

In Banff National Park, elk and moose numbers have also collapsed. The few remaining elk (250) now live in the town-site of Banff, where they can find refuge from the predators in the remainder of the park. The backcountry of this park is now devoid of elk and moose and, as a result, now supports few predators since their food supply has disappeared. The present ungulate population of Banff Park (perhaps 1000 head total) simply cannot support the number of predators that managed systems, such as the East Kootenay, with 10-20,000 ungulates, can. If we manage both predators and their prey, to maintain high populations of both, we can actually have more predators than we can have in “protected” landscapes. Bizarre, but true.

This same shift is also occurring in the areas of the Rockies outside the national parks systems. In the East Kootenay portion of BC, just south of Banff, an area once famous for its ungulate herds, three different elk herds have effectively disappeared, since they are located close to national parks. Two other herds have calf ratios well below that required to maintain the herds.

This phenomena – the impact of multiple predators – has also severely impacted populations of caribou in Alberta and BC and has led to severe declines in their numbers such that some herds are about to disappear.

This is not unexpected. Studies over decades have shown that large predators are not benign. They have massive impacts on their prey species. The fundamental premise of those who believe in “natural regulation” is simply wrong, in multiple predator/multiple prey systems.

In national parks, wildlife viewing, a crucial element of the experience there, is simply not available to visitors now. In areas outside the national parks, both wildlife viewing and the hunting of elk and moose are in a massive decline. This has been a major economic disaster for most of the states and provinces involved. If wildlife managers do not begin to control these predators effectively, within twenty years there will be very few big game animals to manage. Without big game animals, there will be no hunters and without hunters there will be little or no funds to pay for wildlife management. Naturalists and wildlife viewers do not make any substantial financial contributions to wildlife management, since they do not pay any fees for their use of the resource.

What wildlife managers, congressmen, senators, members of parliament, states and provincial politicians have to understand is that we can have abundant big game, and predators; if we manage them both. You cannot just manage part of the system. The multi-billion dollar wildlife viewing and hunting industries across the Northern Rockies are at risk, if we fail to manage predators.

On the US side, there are currently before Congress a number of bills to take wolves partially or totally out of the Endangered Species Act and let the states manage them like they do all other big game. It is a common sense, economically viable thing to do. However, it is opposed violently by animal rights groups who are simply uninformed concerning the biology and ecology of the animals they claim to love.

In both the US and Canada we need to establish population targets for the major predators and manage those populations to achieve those targets. We all want to maintain predators in the system, but in a healthy ecosystem with well-managed winter ranges, large well-managed ungulate populations and sufficient large predator numbers to maintain their presence on the landscape. Montana has an informal target of 150 to 250 wolves in 80,000 km (31,000 mi) of mountain landscape in that state. Idaho has a similar target. Wolves occupy about the same scale of area in the Rockies south of Jasper National Park on the Canadian side. Present wolf numbers are three to four times that number, at least, in each of these areas.

We need to go through the same logical process to decide on targets for grizzly bears, black bears and cougar populations. Interestingly, we have a potential tool to check on the effectiveness of this strategy. When calf recruitment in elk and moose herds returns to its traditional level of 30+ calves per 100 cows, we will know we have a predator-prey system that is in some reasonable level of “balance”. This will allow us to maintain healthy ecosystems that maintain predators in the system, provide for hunting and other uses, and seriously reduce the impact of predators on the ranching community.

Ted, I think you have set up this argument beautifully. However, I would suggest a more specific call to action at about this point in the piece. Perhaps this could be asking the reader to sign an online petition which you could forward to the appropriate federal and state agencies. Perhaps this could be a call for the reader to call or email the appropriate federal or state office that manages this type of action. I just think it needs some kind of powerful call to take some kind of action.

Predators are not benign. Even we humans have trouble controlling our appetites. To somehow expect predators to control theirs, without management, fails even the most simple logic test.


Ted Lyon is an attorney and the co-author of The Real Wolf -The Science, Politics, and Economics of Co-Existing with Wolves in Modern Times. Bob Jamieson is a wildlife biologist living in southern BC. Both have been involved in conservation efforts in their respective countries for 4 decades. This article has been reviewed by several of the most senior wildlife ecologists in western North America.