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Predators and carnivores are not four-letter words

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Predators and carnivores are not four-letter words

Jun 13, 2024 | 8:30 am ET
By Sristi Kamal
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Predators and carnivores are not four-letter words
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Stigma against predators and what their presence means has prompted a string of wolf-poisonings in Oregon in the past year alone. (Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife)

Predators and carnivores: These two words are getting increasingly difficult to use in wildlife conservation and policy without triggering a perception that is steeped in fear of conflict. 

This has come into sharp focus in Oregon with a string of wolf poisonings. The most recent wolf-targeted poisoning in eastern Oregon, which caused wildlife carnage killing multiple species including a cougar, a coyote and golden eagles, shines a spotlight on a devastating response to this fear. Another suspected poisoning case occurred in April in Wallowa County and in a third incident, one was found shot in late May.  

Predators have always had to battle extreme prejudice. Carnivores are natural predators, driven by the need for food and to protect their territory or young ones. Unlike its definition in the context of human societies, being a predator in the animal world doesn’t imply malicious intent, lack of compassion or any such cognitive inference – these are all human traits that we unfortunately project onto animals doing what they must to survive.   

Yet, conservationists often are forced to tiptoe around these words to avoid upsetting political tides. Wildlife policies in Oregon that use the word “predator” do so with perceived or implied negative impact such as human-wildlife conflicts. For example, the “predatory animal” classification in Oregon statute is about species that can cause agricultural losses (ORS Chapter 160). Rarely do we hear a positive story about wolves – most news about wolves in the media talk about predation on livestock and question the place of predators on the landscape.  

This “us versus them” perspective on predators has severed our ecology of kinship with them – one that acknowledges and celebrates the interdependence of human and natural communities. By managing the population size of their prey such as deer and elk, carnivores help maintain the health of forests, grasslands and rivers for other wildlife and for us. And as Oregon explores policies to prevent chronic wasting disease from gaining a foothold in the state, it is important to remember that predators such as wolves cull the sick and cause herd animals to form smaller groups, helping prevent disease spread. Healthy wolf populations even reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions.  

In his 1945 essay, “Thinking Like a Mountain,” Aldo Leopold wrote: “The cowman who cleans his range of wolves does not realize that he is taking over the wolf’s job of trimming the herd to fit the range. He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence, we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.”  

But social stigma against predators and what their presence means has led us to witness multiple horrific wolf-poisoning cases in Oregon in the past year alone. With this latest incident and death of companion dogs, it has become an issue of human safety. And this is not just an Oregon problem – the recent case out of Wyoming where a wolf was tortured in unthinkable ways before being shot to death is another example. 

We have to stop vilifying animals for simply trying to survive on the landscape. Unless we change the narrative on what it means to be a “predator” in the animal world; unless we start framing predators as assets that are important to the health of an ecosystem instead of spotlighting only negative impacts, we will not change social tolerance and human behavior toward animals whose worlds we have changed. It is time we take back the word “predator” for wildlife’s sake.