June 10, 2004
C. William Smith's June 5 letter about "a dying elk calf as he is being ripped apart and eaten alive by a pack of vermin ... being slaughtered in the most inhumane way possible for no good reason" offers a limited view of predation and of predators.
In northern Yellowstone, before wolves were restored, one-third of all the elk calves born there were killed by grizzly bears, black bears or coyotes in their first few weeks of life. Each year, cougars there killed 611 elk, 60 grizzly bears took at least 750 elk calves and 400 coyotes killed about 1,300 elk. Human hunters took several hundred elk annually north of the park. In the absence of this guild of predators, many wildlife scientists and range managers would predict the elk would overpopulate, destroy their range and die miserably of starvation and disease.
Predators like robins eat worms by pulling them apart. Bluebirds kill crickets. Osprey kill trout. Owls kill mice. House cats in America kill hundreds of millions of songbirds each year; dogs kill 1,300 sheep in Montana. Do we vilify them? "Inhumane" is a human value inapplicable to wildlife. Wolves kill large hooved animals for one good reason: to survive. They kill to feed themselves and their pups, using the only tools they have: their fleet feet and their strong jaws and sharp teeth. They've been doing that in North America for about 800,000 years.
Only since Europeans arrived in America 400 years ago have we construed animals as "inhumane." Now, about men: Barry Lopez ("Of Wolves and Men," 1978) wrote, "No one knows how many animals were killed on the plains from, say 1850 to 1900. If you count the buffalo for hides and the antelope for backstraps and the passenger pigeons for target practice and the Indian ponies (by whites, to keep the Indians poor), it is conceivable that 500 million creatures died. Perhaps 1 million wolves; 'million.'"
Norman A. Bishop, Greater Yellowstone area field representative