I’ll bear witness any day of the week for the reintroduction of our largest predators

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Side-hilling a meadow looking for deer, suddenly there she was. Or there they were, the biggest sow black bear I have ever seen and her almost-ready-to-fledge cub.

“Hey, bear! Be a good bear!” I yelled, as calmly as I could muster. She was a good bear, turning and heading back the way she had come, as they usually do, thankfully. I ranged the spot — 32 yards.

Everyone that spends time in bear country has a bear story or two. I have a few, but that was my closest encounter thus far. It was close enough.

Bears are predators and, like most dangerous things that we don’t completely understand, we often fear them. Fear of large predators is part of our DNA and has kept us going.

If our ancestors didn’t fear predators, we likely wouldn’t be here to discuss them.

But somewhere along the line, that healthy fear turned to persecution. Add modern weaponry — even black-powder rifles will do — and you have a recipe for destruction.

That is exactly what has happened, time and time again.

Maybe it was fear that drove such persecution of predators, and maybe competition, because predators were taking “our” deer and elk, or the occasional cow or sheep.

In some ways and places, it was us or them, as Europeans spread across North America.

We clearly won. Predators like grizzly bears, cougar and wolves once ruled North America, after our prehistoric relatives helped remove some of the even more voracious predators, like short-faced bears, saber-toothed cats and the American cheetah.

Those species that survived that initial onslaught from the first humans that colonized North America apparently did well with the new Native Americans, because when Europeans finally arrived they were still abundant across the continent.

They proved to be too much for the new colonists to live with; they had to go.

Only one of the big four predators — grizzly, black bears, cougar and wolves — remains in Tennessee, and the black bear is relegated to the mountainous eastern portions of the state.

Black bears still cause problems, raiding unsecured garbage cans and agricultural fields, and raising the heart rate of hikers, but many East Tennesseans have found a way to live with them.

Indeed, the chance to see a bear is part of the reason that tourists flock to the Smokies each year. Cougars have not faired as well in the Volunteer State, although an occasional siting gives some of us hope.

Grizzlies and wolves have been gone for centuries and are unlikely to make it back, as they typically require vast expanses of uninhabited space to make their living.

This same pattern is common throughout the United States. Our irrational treatment of predators, however, goes far beyond our borders. Before predators were driven to near extinction in North America, our ancestors did the same thing to them in Europe, while simultaneously developing the stories to indoctrinate their (and our) children into an unhealthy fear of predators.

Examples include “Little Red Riding Hood,” “The Three Little Pigs” and even “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” More recently, Hollywood has helped us along, with “Jaws,” “The Revenant” and “The Grey.”

Like a lot of things, our culture’s use of news as entertainment — and thus profit — has led to a lot of hype about predators.

Every bear or shark attack, as rare as hen’s teeth, gets national attention as if the sky is falling. But statistics have a funny way to revealing what is really dangerous in our lives.

Each of us is much more likely to die in a car accident (1 in 84), gun violence (1 in 315), drowning (1 in 1,314) and a lightning strike (1 in 79,746), fireworks (1 in 340,733) than because of any attack by a bear (1 in 2.1 million) or shark (1 in 3.75 million).

If you were playing the numbers and had these odds with the same payout, which would you bet on?

Driving a car is infinitesimally more dangerous than any predator in our forests or oceans; but for some reason, we ignore that danger, keep trying to text while driving and focus on the irrational fear of predators.

The problem with our persecution of these great beasts is that, not surprisingly, they are important to the ecology of our planet.

Numerous studies have shown how predators benefit the communities they live in, and often limit the populations of otherwise dominant species, allowing room for other species to occur and thus increasing the biodiversity of our forests, grasslands and oceans.

We call these species “keystones” because, like the stone architecture of arches, predators are the key to increased diversity. Pull that one predator stone out, and the community falls apart like the walls of a tunnel or bridge support.

When we lost our predators, we lost a lot more than one species — entire communities changed throughout North America.

Although experiments in the mid-1970s showed us how keystone predation worked, we didn’t really realize what we had lost until we started to bring large predators back in earnest.

The first restoration of wolves into Yellowstone National Park in the ’80s quickly showed what was missing.

With wolves back, the once sedentary elk were again on the move. They spent less time near wetlands, allowing willows, a shrubby wetland plant species, to regrow for the first time in decades.

Willow provide habitat for many songbirds, which returned to these areas, and also food for beavers, which recolonized the areas formerly dominated by elk and began building ponds.

With more water on the landscape, endangered cutthroat trout have made a comeback. This cascade of life all happened because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had the courage to restore wolves to Yellowstone.

It was experimental at first, but now numerous restorations have replicated the same result, and we are beginning to finally realize how important predators are to ecosystems.

Imagine if that restoration was replicated elsewhere — throughout the West, in the  Upper Midwest and any other place we still have enough habitat to support wolves and other large predators.

Would there be conflicts with humans? Yes, almost certainly. But in some areas, the benefits to the environment would likely outweigh the costs associated with those conflicts, as they have at Yellowstone.

What is the future of predators? It is up to all of us. For me, I am willing to bear witness for them any day of the week, even when they raise my pulse in a mountain meadow.

None of us wants to be attacked, and none want to lose a dog, cow, sheep or horse to a neighborhood bear.

But in reality, with proper precautions, we can minimize predator conflicts and find ways to live with them rather than against them.

It has become clear that if we can learn how to do so, the ecological benefits for the ecosystems that help sustain all of life, including our own, are enormous.


HOWARD WHITEMAN, who lives northwest of Paris, is a professor of wildlife and conservation biology in Murray State University’s Department of Biological Sciences and is director of its Watershed Studies Institute. His email address is hwhiteman@murraystate.edu.

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