Driving the road early morning, looking for wildlife, gives me time to ponder questions like–why is it I see grizzly bears during the daytime in Yellowstone National Park vs. where I live just 20 miles east of the Park where they are basically nocturnal? Bears have not been hunted outside the Park since 1975, and there are plenty of them in my valley. Yet bears in my wild valley, like all wildlife, avoid the most unpredictable top predator–Man.
Until the hunt began two years ago in Wyoming, I used to see wolves. In the winter, I’d see them on kills they made near the dirt road. In the summer hiking in my valley, I had many close encounters with wolves, none of them eliciting fear. It was obvious they were simply curious. But since the hunt, they are no longer curious and they are no longer visible. A good thing if they want to stay alive.
Today’s wildlife, and especially predators, are basically nocturnal or crepuscular, feeding, moving, hunting when Man is asleep. I have to ask: Has it always been like this?
Reading the journals of Lewis & Clark, they describe seeing herds of bison, wolves, grizzly bears and coyotes in the middle of the day going about their business.
“…we scarcely see a gang of buffaloe without observing a parsel of those faithfull shepherds [wolves] on their skirts in readiness to take care of the mamed & wounded”
Beaver, considered today to be nocturnal, were easily seen during the daytime in the early 1800’s. A buffalo calf, unfamiliar with humans, followed Lewis around. Game was “very abundant and gentle”.
“Immence quantities of game in every direction around us as we passed up the river, consisting of herds of Buffaloe, Elk, and Antelopes with some deer and woolves.”
According to Lewis’ account, when the presence of Man is minimized, prey and predator dance together, during the daytime.
When we study the nature, movements, and habits, of today’s wildlife, how can we know what is baseline? What are their natural rhythms?
Wildlife in the Park are confined to a virtual zoo, yet they have not been hunted for over 100 years [on the other hand, they are still being controlled. For example, bison are under an agreement to be kept to around 3000 animals. When they leave the Park in winter, they are killed to reduce their numbers.] Wildlife outside the Park are hunted and so, particularly the vilified predators, are rarely seen, moving among the shadows of the night.
Wildlife that live around cities, such as raccoons, coyotes, foxes–what we might call mesopredators–also avoid humans by wandering the streets when the humans are asleep.
Before 1492, New World numbers were estimated to be around 54 million peoples. The pre-European native impact on the landscape reflected the cumulative effects of a growing population over the previous 15,000 years or more. European entry into the New World abruptly reversed this trend. The decline of native American populations was rapid and severe, the biggest genocide ever. Old World diseases were the primary killer. In the basin of Mexico, for instance, the population dropped from 1.6 million in 1519 to 180,000 in 1607 (89 percent); and in North America from 3.8 million in 1492 to 1 million in 1800 (74 percent).
So when Lewis & Clark came West in 1805, were they seeing wildlife baseline? Or just the result of a diminished native population? North American native peoples had their own rise and fall of civilizations–Cahokia, Ancestral Pueblo Culture, Poverty Point, and many others that were as equally sophisticated as the Aztecs or Mayans. What were wildlife interactions during those times when many ancient peoples in the Americas lived in cities? Was wildlife again moving nocturnally? Were they being hunted out?
What is baseline? What is the natural rhythm for elk, or wolves, or grizzly bears? Today’s wildlife biologists use observation methods unknown in the past–GPS collars, trail cameras, plane flyovers, computer mapping–all very sophisticated. But the interactions amongst predator-prey species are probably dictated more by human pressures than by each other.
When we postulate new wildlife theories, such as “The Landscape of Fear“, what exactly are we observing? Certainly not what Lewis observed in 1803 when wolves, coyotes, elk, deer and bison all traveled together–wolves following on the outside of these large herds. New theories enlarge The Landscape of Fear to include not only top-down but bottom-up where the bottom has to do with beavers providing the habitat for willows and aspen rather than just elk avoiding drainages. And scientists acknowledge that baseline is a moving target.
And so the answers to these questions will always be uncertain. One thing I can easily observe–wildlife is more afraid of Man than they are of any other predator. That, I believe, is an unfortunate thing. Writer Mary Beck says in her book Seven Half-Miles from Home:
This one species has contrived to make himself feared and hated by most other creatures. Since this fact is rubbed into my consciousness day after day by many creatures with whom I would be friends, I grow sensitive and ashamed of being one of such feared and hated beings.