Saturday, January 30, 2010

Wolves & Sharks: key predators at risk from sport

From time to time in this blog, I have cited the role that ocean predators such as sharks play in maintaining a balanced ecosystem - whether we personally care for the animal or not. In fact when I would speak to groups about sharks, I would acknowledge the fears and distaste that some people in the audience might have but would then focus on the critical importance of the shark. You may not love them, but they are indispensable.

And from time to time, I have mentioned the ongoing situation regarding endangered wolves in the U.S. The designation of wolves as endangered in the Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain areas has been a flip-flopping issue with certain populations faced with extinction at the hands of hunters, backed by the support of concerned ranchers who have lost cattle to predation.

There are strong parallels between sharks and wolves both socially, with their interaction with mankind, and ecologically. First, ecologically, they serve the same functions as apex predators, maintaining a proper balance of fauna and even flora within their respective ecosystems. Without sharks, the numbers of their primary prey would increase, feeding on smaller prey that are often herbivores. And so there is a potential shift in a marine community and a potential increase in vegetation and algae that can threaten other life forms like coral - all part of the non-linear cascade effect.

Wolves serve a similar function, maintaining balance between prey ranging from small "varmints" to deer, elk, and moose. In the past when the wolves were not provided protection as endangered species, there was both an explosion in the small animal or rodent population and a decline in grazing land as more and more large animals like deer and elk would de-nude the grasslands.

Secondly, sharks have been exposed to senseless hunting through "shark tournaments" wherein large numbers of both juvenile and mature breeding sharks were hauled in, often times the catch being sharks of no tournament or commercial value. With organizations like the Shark-Free Marinas Initiative, there are efforts being made to at least alter the decisively fatal outcome generated by shark tournaments through the implementation of catch-and-release techniques. With the current state of regulations and protections for wolves being in somewhat disarray (see prior post), there are now similar tournaments, "wolf-killing derbies," that leave dwindling populations of wolves in the Greater Yellowstone and Northern Rocky areas, including Idaho and Montana, at great risk.

The Defenders of Wildlife, through their campaign, are working to protect these threatened land predators by educating people to their importance and by focusing public awareness towards the businesses and corporations that sponsor or support the wolf-killing derbies.

According to Defenders of Wildlife president, Rodger Schlickeisen, "Since wolves were reintroduced to Greater Yellowstone and central Idaho fifteen years ago, we’ve seen local ecosystems rebound as these top predators helped prevent overgrazing of foliage by elk and deer. According to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, there are 150,000 elk in Montana, compared to 90,000 in the mid 1980s when wolves started to make their way back to the state. Wyoming's elk population is up 35% since then to 95,000, while Idaho's is up 5% to 115,000."

Sharks and wolves - critically important predators that bring balance to nature's ecosystems but whose image, from Jaws to Little Miss Riding Hood, have placed them on a collision course with man - are at risk of extinction. And, because of the complexity of nature's web, man's attempts to artificially achieve balance (eliminate the predator, then control the increasing prey populations) have not been particularly productive. The challenge is to find methods not to control nature's balance but to work with it, allowing it to flourish in it's infinitely more successful ways.

To learn more about the campaign to save the wolves, click here.
To learn more about the campaign to eliminate wolf-killing derbies,
click here.

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