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July 18, 2008

Where the Wild Things Were - An Interview with Author William Stolzenburg

Will Stolzenburg Portrait by Kathy Stolzenburg

William Stolzenburg, author of Where the Wild Things Were: Life, Death, and Ecological Wreckage in a Land of Vanishing Predators

Will Stolzenburg Portrait by Kathy Stolzenburg

Congratulations on your new book, "Where the Wild Things Were: Life, Death, and Ecological Wreckage in a Land of Vanishing Predators" and thank you for taking time for this interview.

In your book, you describe how the disappearance of the world's great predators has led to devastating affects on ecosystems around the world. Can you highlight one of the examples for us?

The disappearance of the wolf from America. Not so long ago, this country was roamed coast to coast by wolves. Now they're just a few pushpins on the nation's map. We all but obliterated them, for reasons not well considered.

Sixty-five years ago, Aldo Leopold was warning that there were ecological repercussions from the killing, that deer and elk were amassing in destructive numbers, and that they in turn were wrecking the range.

Now we have scientists repeating Leopold's warning, with strong new data, the worst of it coming from our national parks and preserves. We have floral inventories dropping by dozens of species over the past fifty years, we have statewide tracts of timber no longer regenerating for too many deer. We have streamside groves being denuded and trampled by elk and deer, losing birds, butterflies, frogs, and fish. We have a horrific epidemic of Lyme disease, carried by what was once called the deer tick. We have deer crashing through our windshields and driving us into trees, killing upwards of two hundred of us every year. In our suburban woods and backyards we have epidemics of little predators—raccoons and foxes, opossums and housecats—and songbirds vanishing by the many millions. I could go on.

Nobody is seriously claiming that these plagues spring solely from the disappearance of wolves—or cougars, to name another top predator that's missing over much of its former range. Backyard America has become a smorgasbord for urban wildlife. We plant flowers and shrubs and clear land to their liking, we leave pet food on the back porch and garbage in the carport. But one point to consider: While it's become all too easy to find the deer and the little predators running amok wherever the big predators are missing, you won't find them doing so anyplace where wolves and cougars still hold sway.

Few people have heard about the important role played by major carnivores.  What led you to focus on these species?

For so long, so much of the campaign for conservation has focused on the more blatant assaults on nature: the cutting and paving of forests and wildlands, the draining of wetlands and fouling of seas. I was inherently more interested in the denizens of those damaged ecosystems, and how the individual lives and livelihoods were altered by the upheavals. And it turns out a few ecologists were particularly curious too.

I was lucky enough to come upon the work of some of these scientists early on, when the idea was just beginning to blossom that the loss of certain species—keystone species they've come to call them—could trigger ecological cascades that tumble through the food chain. And it so happened that some of the creatures most readily identified for these keystone powers were those big, fierce, and rare creatures at the top of the heap. As much as I've dedicated myself to championing the little and the unsung creatures in my career as a wildlife journalist, there's always been that special fascination for the big predators and their profession. And the recent discoveries of their inordinate ecological powers has made them all the more fascinating.


Why should people care about biodiversity and the balance of these ecosystems?

I suppose I should answer here with the familiar rollout of utilitarian products and services that a balanced diversity of life provides—as buffer against outbreaks of pest and plague, as food for our stomachs, medicines for our ills.

But it's a mistake to discount the softer rewards, the benefits of the mind. The sheer fascination and yes, fear, that comes from living with and learning from the dizzying array of lifeforms—some of which occasionally make meat of us. There's a good argument to be made that the big and dangerous beasts made us who we are today. For most of our first million years, they inspired us and challenged us, made us wiser and stronger. Only in the last couple centuries have we been going it alone, as sole superpredator of the Earth. We've only just begun this worldwide experiment. It's anybody's guess how we're going to fare. But that's an answer we won't know until it's too late. And given the discouraging signs so far, I'm not very comfortable with the gamble.

What can citizens do to help protect these species?

Give them a break.

The big predators are missing because we kill them. And if we're not shooting them outright, we're strangling the life out of their habitats and livelihoods. As amazing as it might sound, there remain places in this country still big enough and wild enough and meaty enough to support populations of wolves and cougars (and yes, jaguars) where they haven't roamed for nearly a century. And yet we resist and delay, while those special places shrink out of sight. In some cases, all it would take to jumpstart a new population would be to truck a few individuals across a state line or two.

In some cases, the predators have shown themselves able and willing to do the work for us, if we would let them. Over the last few years we've seen a wolf from Yellowstone make its way to the Colorado Rockies, only to be hit by a car on Interstate 70. It's harder to imagine any making it that far now, what with Wyoming lawmakers lately inviting their citizens to shoot wolves on sight. Last April, a cougar that may have come from the Black Hills of South Dakota wandered eight hundred miles to Chicago, where of course it was executed.

This is not to suggest inviting wolves into our sheep pens, or turning cougars loose in Chicago. But there does remain room where the great predators could still fit, if society just made a few reasonable concessions. And time is wasting.

For more about William, read his bio at wildthings.net.


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