Predators crucial to ecosystem
Going Nature's Way
When I ski the trails on our property I am always looking at the tracks. They change daily and with the snow conditions. Many (too many) are made by deer, and there are plenty of squirrel tracks and occasional feral cat prints, but what I am really looking for are canine tracks. Not those made by dogs, but by wolf, coyote or red fox. I think I have seen one coyote track crossing through our woods in the last week and possibly a fox track today, but they are rare sightings. I am sure there are occasional wolves in the nearby CC Andrews State forest, but they have not ventured onto our property that I know of.
We, Americans of European descent, have a complicated and convoluted history with canines. On the one hand we have a deep, abiding love for our dogs, which in reality are just domesticated wolves. But when it comes to the real thing and its cousins there are many who react with one of two extreme opinions. They either adore the wolf to a nearly supernatural level, or they hate it with a fanatical rage. The former often will choose to have a pet that is a wolf/dog hybrid, in order to be closer to the animal of their dreams. This is always a bad idea, since wolf/dog hybrids are truly the canine version of Jeckyll and Hyde, creatures who biologically do not know which they should be, often with disastrous results for humans and the animals themselves.
Then there are those who believe the only good wolf is a dead wolf. Some of this hatred stems from our European ancestors who brought to this country their myths and real encounters with wolves. Specifically, those experiences of the Middle Ages when wolves, not surprisingly, feasted on the unburied bodies during the Black Plague years. In Europe, people lived in villages and the outlying land was used for farming and grazing and here too the wolves competed with the people, earning them nothing but contempt.
In North America, the native people had an entirely different relationship with the wild canines. Rather than villains, these animals were teachers. The Native Americans for the most part were hunter/gatherers and in the middle of the country, millions of bison were enough food for man and beast alike. The wolves taught people hunting techniques and for some tribes demonstrated examples of strong family relationships. This is not to say that these people did not kill wolves on occasion. Their fur was used for clothing and in certain ceremonial ways, but it was a limited harvest and not due to hatred of this predator.
I admire all the wild canids for their ability to adapt to changing conditions brought on by humans, and their ability to continue to flourish for the most part, although wolves have been the least successful at surviving our efforts to eliminate them from the landscape. Minnesota and Alaska remain the only two states to boast a large number of wolves. Approximately 3,000 live here, and with few exceptions, all in the northern half of the state. We seem to have a begrudging acceptance to their presence. Go west and you find the same hostility towards wolves that has existed since the settlers moved west. Thank goodness for Yellowstone National Park, where wolves once again exist and have helped restore the native vegetation by reducing the overabundant elk.
Coyotes have suffered reduction at the jaws of the wolves in Yellowstone too, but this is a return to the normal relationship. Where you have wolves, you will find fewer coyotes and where you have coyotes, you will find fewer foxes. It comes down to competition for food again. It is well documented that since wolves have been eliminated from much of the country, coyotes have exploded in range and population. These canids are so smart and adaptable that even after a century of poisoning, shooting, trapping, and every other form of harassment possible, they continue to live among us. According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) there are an estimated 40,000 coyotes spread throughout the state. Roughly 4,000 are shot or trapped each year. “Poor, out of luck and friendless” is the way Mark Twain defined the coyote.
The Minnesota DNR says the red fox is our most common predator. Though they don’t list any actual population numbers, they say that hunters and trappers harvest up to 100,000 each year, and that “the fox population remains strong.” We used to see a beautiful red fox occasionally on our property and I believe it had a den here too. By the number (ever increasing it seems) of squirrels living nearby, I have to believe that there is no canine predator who regularly visits our land.
Most recently we read an article about new research on Lyme disease that indicated fox have been a control factor in the past and their absence may be leading to the spread of the so called "deer tick" which carries so many variations of this debilitating disease. Red fox are superb hunters of rodents. That is their main dietary staple. Minnesota wildlife photographer Michael Furtman has taken lots of photos of red fox hunting and spent countless hours waiting and watching for action. His observations have shown the red fox to be a bigger consumer of voles than mice and one fox in particular was successful eight out of 10 times when it pounced. They will also cache food if they are having a "good day." I for one, would be happy to have a resident fox to start cutting back on the rodent population (mice in particular).
We have changed our landscape dramatically over the past 100 years, in many ways to our current benefit, but in other ways our ecosystem is out of balance, missing critical components, including predators. Ultimately, we pay a price for that disruption.