The killing of native carnivores has been a common practice in North America since European colonists arrived nearly four centuries ago. When the early settlers encountered wolves, grizzly bears, and cougars along the eastern seaboard, they viewed these animals as a threat to livestock and competition for game species and endeavored to exterminate them. The Massachusetts Bay Colony offered the first bounty on wolves as early as 1630. Aggressive trapping and hunting by the fur trade also took their toll on many carnivore species including fox, bobcats, and lynx.
Pushing westward in the early to mid-1800s, settlers killed carnivores as well as bison, elk, and other large grazing animals to clear the land for domestic livestock and farming. Ranchers, bounty hunters, and professional hunters and trappers killed millions of coyotes, wolves, bears, and cougars. Large-scale cattle grazing resulted in the widespread depletion of vegetation and the wildlife that consumed it. Without natural prey, the remaining predators were forced to prey on livestock to survive, which only bolstered predator eradication campaigns.
In more recent years, lethal damage control programs have expanded across North America. For example, more than 2.5 million animals, including wolves, bears, coyotes, bobcats, foxes, and cougars, are killed by the U.S government each year, through the United States Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services program. Some carnivores are also killed to boost “game” stocks for hunters and to protect corporate-owned timberlands. Private interests and government agents have employed an array of lethal techniques – ranging from gunning from helicopters, denning (killing pups in their dens with a fumigant), the use of steel-jaw leghold traps and strangulation neck snares, poisoning with compound 1080 or cyanide gas, baiting, hounding, shooting, clubbing, and trapping – to kill an astonishing number of carnivores. Such methods are terribly inhumane and generally doomed to fail as they don’t address the root causes of conflicts or provide long-lasting solutions.
In addition, massive destruction and fragmentation of critical wildlife habitat by logging, mining, oil, real estate, and other development have resulted in dramatic declines in some species. As a result of human encroachment into wildlife habitat, conflicts between carnivores and humans have arisen – with wildlife often paying a fatal price. Trophy hunting and trapping continue to take a grim toll on native carnivores across the continent.
This relentless war on carnivores has pushed some species to the brink of extinction. For example, wolves and grizzly bears have largely disappeared from much of their historic range. Those carnivore populations that still persist remain in small and isolated populations. Other carnivore populations, such as bald eagles, plummeted after exposure from pollutants such as the pesticide, DDT. Still others, like coyotes, managed to survive despite onslaughts by hunters, trappers, ranchers, and government agents. As a result, federal and state governments, landowners, hunters, and trappers – determined to wipe coyotes out – have continued an all out assault on the wild canine.
Carnivores play an integral role maintaining healthy ecosystems by regulating deer and elk, as well as smaller mammal, populations. Most of these species need large areas of land to meet all of their food and habitat requirements. For this reason, carnivores, especially wide-ranging species such as grizzly bears, are considered “umbrella” species. By protecting large wild areas for predators to live and roam, we are, in effect, saving a place for many more animal and plant species. Yet, sustained lethal control, as well as trophy hunting of some of these species, have had a devastating impact on the environmental health of the North American continent. Biologists have found that many large native carnivores are “keystone species,” and play a pivotal role in maintaining ecological integrity and preserving species diversity. The disappearance of a keystone species triggers the loss of other local species, and the intricate connections among the remaining residents begin to unravel. Species losses cascade and multiply throughout the ecosystem in a “domino effect.” In the words of conservation biologist John Terborgh, “Our current knowledge about the natural processes that maintain biodiversity suggests a crucial and irreplaceable role of top predators. The absence of top predators appears to lead inexorably to ecosystem simplification accompanied by a rush of extinctions.”
It is troubling carnivores have not received adequate protections even after intensive campaigns by conservation and animal welfare groups. Many organizations advocating for carnivores have raised critical awareness about the plight these species. Despite such laudable efforts, carnivores continue to face ruthless persecution. It seems little has changed for carnivores since settlers arrived in the New World.
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