Back last April I wrote that Maine was “Spiraling Toward a Predator Pit“. As a reminder to readers, this is what I wrote to describe what a predator pit was as defined by Dr. Charles Kay, professor of wildlife ecology at Utah State University.
“A predator pit is created when deer populations (speaking of Maine’s deer management problem) have been reduced for various reasons and existing key predators, like coyote, bear and bobcat, can drive those numbers even further into an abyss, perhaps prohibiting a regrowth of the herd.”
What we need to be aware of is that once any region has fallen victim to the predator pit, we are talking about prey species, in this case whitetail deer, dropping to levels where they are prohibited from rebounding. For this reason alone it becomes a predator pit. Prey is controlled by predators to the extent that barring a die off of the predators, the deer will never recover.
What is unfortunate about the notion of there being predator pits is the refusal by wildlife biologists and game managers to accept this as a viable event, a destructive one that completely destroys any game management plan mostly because it was never part of the plan to begin with. Little or no thought is given to the negative effects of predators such as coyotes or wolves prior to now because never in our lifetimes has society worked so hard to protect these predators. We’ve refused to learn history and are now doomed to repeat it.
Make no mistake about it, predator pits will not correct themselves nor will “nature” achieve it’s own balance in any way that most people imagine a “natural balance”. The biggest myth being spread these days is that our ecosystems need these keystone predators in order to achieve this balance and make for healthy forests. If predator pits are what you define as natural balance then that’s what you’ll get.
So how do we get out of a predator pit situation? Here’s one person’s assessment after years of studying wolves and other predators. Will Graves, author the the book, “Wolves in Russia: Anxiety Through the Ages”, recently wrote the following in an email I received over the weekend. Graves, among other studies and research he has done over the years, spent as much as ten years in Russia studying the gray wolf. One of the many areas he examined concerning the effects of wolves on humans and the ecosystem was this idea of a predator pit. While Graves didn’t exactly use the term predator pit, he does describe what happens to prey species when wolves are not controlled.
Here’s what Graves said about how to get out of the pit:
From my research I have learned that to help a particular prey species recover from a predation pit it is necessary to remove about 70 to 80% of primary predators (wolves in most cases) for at least three years. Then research on the prey population and adjust accordingly. It may take five to 15 years to pull a prey population out of a predation pit, as weather plays a role. Removing even 20% or even 50% of the wolves would not be effective.
This is not encouraging at all. The sooner we can learn about this the quicker we can put into place management practices that will prevent a costly and destructive predation pit. It’s only common sense that when states begin protecting key predators, something has got to change and adjustments need to be made accordingly. Are we so blinded by the desires to protect one species at the expense of others we cannot or will not see this?
No one will argue the point that if Maine allowed it’s deer population to grow unchecked and worked only to protect it from any kind of harm, there soon would be a serious deer problem including the spread of certain diseases. Coyotes reproduce at a rate far higher than that of whitetail deer, so why wouldn’t it seem logical that in time, there would be a serious coyote problem?
The key here is to recognize the problem and work to prevent it from happening elsewhere. With brand new studies coming out about the effects of predators on livestock, we are finding that predators constantly are harassing livestock, something that completely caught researchers off guard. Perhaps it’s time to reconsider the notion that large predators have minimal effect on large prey species.
Many sportsmen are under the impression that predators such as coyotes have to kill off all the deer in order to drive deer populations to unsustainable levels. This is not true. All predators need to do is to reduce the fawn recruitment level to below sustainable levels. With no new deer to replenish the herd, it’s only a matter of time before the herd will die off. The age structure becomes seriously skewed with far too many older deer. Once they die off, it’s the end.
In those areas where Maine has predation pits, as I see it there are two options. Do nothing or systematically reduce predator populations. Doing nothing should not be considered a viable option.