A look at the reintroduction of predators into the wild
Reintroducing (or in some cases introducing for the first time) a predator into the wild is a very controversial subject, bringing with it heightened emotions.
Wolves – previously extinct in Yellowstone National Park – have been reintroduced here, as have bears in the Alps, panthers in Florida, and eagles in Scotland. There has also been talk of reintroducing wolves to Scotland.
Those against such reintroduction programmes argue about the animal’s impact on the human population in these areas, the affect this will have on farming businesses, and concerns of human predation. Surprisingly, non-profit organisation, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, also argue against reintroduction as they believe this will cause too much stress and harm to the animals involved. So why reintroduce predators back to the wild in light of such risks?
Around the world, the absence of predators in certain areas has lead to an explosion of their natural prey, which has in turn lead to a damaging impact on their habitat owing to overgrazing. It seems logical then to restore the natural balance by reintroducing the animal’s natural predator, thereby controlling the population and restoring and protecting the wild environment. But does it really work, and do the benefits outweigh the risks?
One of the best known examples of predator reintroduction is that of the Yellowstone wolves in Idaho, USA. After having been extinct from this area in 1926, grey wolves were brought back to Yellowstone National Park in 1995, nearly 30 years after discussions began in 1966. The idea that initiated this reintroduction was concern over the ever-growing elk population, which was increasingly becoming uncontrollable with no natural predators to maintain a stable population. This directly impacted upon the fauna of the national park: aspen and riparian cottonwood crashed due to overgrazing of the elk and other large prey animals.
Introducing wolves here did have the desired effect of decreasing the elk population, however a counter argument to this is that it has decreased revenue for hunting outfitters, putting some people out of business completely. On the flipside, ‘wolf tourism’ is booming, bringing further revenue to the region. Their reintroduction also reportedly increased biodiversity in Yellowstone National Park: aspen and willow trees were able to make a recovery. Red fox and beaver populations – which previously decreased due to increased predation from coyotes – also recovered, as the wolves were also able to keep the coyote population under control.
Wolves in Sweden
In Sweden, wolves were previously thought to have become extinct in the wild during the 1960s. However a small pack was found in the early 1980s in southern Sweden. The pack consisted of only around 10 individuals, which made inbreeding a big concern. Owing to concerns over the pack’s small gene pool, there is currently debate over whether introducing wolves from Finland or Russia could help to promote intermixing and diversify the gene pool.
Wolves in Scotland
In 2002, one of Scotland’s wealthiest landowners, Paul van Vlissingen, suggested that wolves and wild lynx – previously native to Scotland – be reintroduced to manage an ever-growing population of red deer.
The results of the study Vlissingen commissioned took place over three years, and found that deer culling, which is enforced to keep number of deer down, had a low long-term effect on the numbers of deer. The study also found that the numbers of deer prevented regrowth of vegetation. He believed that reintroduction of species such as lynx and wolves would boost tourism revenue. ‘There is enormous eco-tourism building in the world, and Scotland is losing out,’ he said.
White-tailed Eagles in Scotland
The third phase of the reintroduction of white-tailed eagle in Scotland is now underway in the east of Scotland.
The white-tailed eagle (also known as sea-eagle) was reintroduced to the Isle of Rum in 1975 and has been a successful programme for this bird of prey. It is now being reintroduced to Ireland, but this has been met with negativity from local sheep farmers over concerns that the eagles would kill their lambs.
Releasing this species into England was also being considered, but here again was met with concern from farmers that the eagles would harm their livestock, and there was difficulty meeting the financial burden.
There is concern over the well-being of the eagles in eastern Scotland, where wind turbines are planned. Such an issue arose in Norway where, during the course of ten months, four white-tailed eagles were killed by wind turbines, bringing the total of eagle deaths to 13 since 2005.
However, reintroducing the eagles to the west coats of Scotland has reaped benefits. Scottish environment minister, Michael Russell, commented, ‘The equivalent project on the west coast has proved to be extremely popular amongst visitors and contributes approximately £1.5 million annually to the economy on Mull. I look forward to the east coast reintroduction resulting in similar benefits and further enhancing the area’s biodiversity.’
Mark Avery, RSPB’s Director of Conservation, has stated, ‘Our experience with reintroducing white-tailed eagles to Scotland shows how much their presence boosts the local economy through tourism opportunities worth millions of pounds a year.’
Panthers in Florida
The Florida Panther was introduced near the town of Naples, Florida, to control an otherwise unmanageable wild hog population. Here there are concerns from the local human population of Naples that encounters are becoming too common, as there are more than 100 Florida panthers now ranging free near the town of Naples. However, there have been no reported attacks on humans by Florida panthers. (BBC News.)
Reasons Against Reintroduction of Predators
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) have released a statement declaring that they do not support predator-reintroduction programmes.
They cite a number of reasons for this, including the fact that reintroduction subjects animals to capture and handling, which is very stressful for them and can be damaging to their physical health. In the case of wolves, they explain that relocation can break up tightly bonded family units, which can cause further distress for the animal. They argue that the wolves reintroduced to the park have left their new packs as they have had difficulty adapting to the new area and new pack unit.
Reintroduction of predatory species, they claim, is also traumatic for other animals already living in the habitat.
Touching on the point of reintroduction programmes restoring the true balance of nature, they believe that it is not possible to artificially impose such a balance, and argue that ecosystems are in a constant state of change, which human expansion and development has sped up. However, they theorize that the ecosystem has ‘evolved and recovered to its current state’.
Opponents to reintroduction programmes point out that media hype may spiral out of control with the presence of wild predatory animals in close proximity to human populations; sensational stories could be written, increasing negative feelings toward the animals, much in the same way as myths and fables have done through the ages about wolves, for example. This would lead to increased predation of these animals by human hunters.
Reasons For Reintroduction of Predators
Those who are pro reintroduction argue that doing so would restore the natural ecological balance, controlling the larger ungulate populations and benefiting the fauna.
But many – especially farming communities – fear that predators living in the area would conflict with their own interests, with their livestock being prayed on.
However, although these animals could bring financial loss to some, they have the potential to bring great financial gain to the region as a whole thanks to ecotourism, which is an industry rapidly growing in popularity and revenue.
Ultimately, as the dominant species at the top of the food chain, it is natural human instinct to want to remain at the top. But the dynamics of the natural environment are changing due to our massive influence on the ecology and biodiversity of the planet. We may initially see predators living on our doorsteps as an inconvenience, and even a threat. But in spite of the inconveniences, the threat to someone’s livelihood in terms of their livestock, or the potential threat to human life in extreme cases, humankind needs to accept that we need these animals to maintain a balanced natural environment, and we need to accept that these animals are a part of our world, because we would struggle without them in it.