A look at the dark side • Nevada Current

Sixty years ago, an ecology professor from the University of Washington traveled to the Washington coastline to conduct a simple yet revealing experiment.

He selected two separate distinct rocky patches of coastline with common characteristics. Each patch contained a similar mixture of marine organisms, ranging from limpets, snails, and mussel up to and including an orange starfish, the primary (or apex) species of that small ecosystem.

Using one of the two rocky patches as the experimental platform and the other as the control, the professor made monthly visits to the coast, tossing out every starfish he found from the experimental location while leaving the control site untouched.

After a year, he documented dramatic changes which occurred in the altered site where starfish had been discarded.

Mussels, the main prey item for the starfish, had ‘flourished spectacularly’ in the absence of starfish, destroying the impressive diversity of organisms previously found and creating a near-monoculture of mussels.

The second rocky patch left intact (no starfish removed) showed continued diversity and ecological health.

The inescapable conclusion was that “one particular kind of animal wielded a disproportionately large hand in determining how many species shared the rock.”

Biodiversity in that tiny marine ecosystem took a major “hit” when starfish were removed.

That simple but elegant and revealing experiment is recorded in Will Stolzenburg’s seminal 2008 book, Where the Wild Things Were.

Stolzenburg takes his readers on a trip around the globe, providing multiple additional examples of how the integrity and diversity of complex fauna ecosystems depends upon all the players being present.

All animals are not equal. Some species are more important to an intact diverse ecosystem than others. This fact requires an adjustment to the terminology used to reference these differences.

What’s in a word?

Humans are recognized as the planet’s most prolific ‘predator’. Yet, ‘sportsman’ or ‘hunter’ are terms used by wildlife management agencies to describe their licensees.

Similarly, describing a mountain lion, wolf, or even a starfish as a ‘predator’ without further specification and with the implicit assumption that all necessary and sufficient knowledge about the creature is contained within the term itself, is no longer scientifically tenable.

‘Apex species’ or ‘apex predator’ is now replacing ‘predator’ as a more modern expression of the specific kind of importance that species brings to its environment.

‘Keystone species’ is another related modern term used to reference valuable contributions by other species, somewhat different in nature and scope.

For example, the lightly regarded jackrabbit, commonly seen across the West, can be considered a ‘keystone’ species because of the wide spectrum of other wildlife species which depend on it as a food source.

Bobcats, coyotes, mountain lions, hawks, owls, eagles, ravens, bugs and beetles and others are highly dependent on various rabbit species for survival.

The profound importance of apex and keystone species – those animals which have a disproportionate effect on the orderliness, diversity, and sustainability of the biological communities in which they live – is increasingly well- known and described in scientific literature.

What, then, does a starfish and a mountain lion have in common, you ask?

Both are apex species.

The mountain lion is an apex species in Nevada.

Given its status as such, a reasonable question to ask is whether the mountain lion is being managed in Nevada with recognition of its importance and in accordance with best available science?

Unfortunately, answering in the affirmative is not an option.

The reasons are complex and have a lot to do with mythology and emotion rather than science.

Let’s consider an egregious example which involves another prominent Nevada wildlife species, bighorn sheep. But with a big difference.

Bighorns are neither an apex nor keystone species.

A few weeks ago, the Joint Interim Standing Committee on Natural Resources (ISC) at the Nevada Legislature conducted a review of two state commissions dealing with natural resources, one of which was the Nevada Board of Wildlife Commissioners (NBWC).

The general question under consideration by the ISC was whether and to what degree the composition of the two politically appointed commissions reflects the current demographics and other characteristics of Nevada’s three million citizens.

Are these commissions sufficiently democratic in nature to dispense fair and equitable management to benefit all Nevadans rather than special interest groups?

When the ISC reviewed the NBWC, it heard presentations by the Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW), NBWC, hunter advocacy groups, wildlife advocates and social justice groups.

The hunter advocacy presentation focused on Nevada’s bighorn sheep program which, over many years, has succeeded in producing a bighorn population in Nevada that exceeds all other states except Alaska.

The highlight of the presentation – perhaps somewhat self-congratulatory in the process – was a glossy, exciting video clip of the simultaneous release of several bighorn sheep into a new mountain environment after having been captured and transported from elsewhere.

A viewer might understandably have been left with the impression that something akin to magic had occurred, a win-win, that all involved with the project left with ‘clean hands.’

Yet, there was a dark side, not mentioned by the presenters, nor by NDOW/NBWC.

Nature’s regulators

Over the past twenty years, mountain lions have paid a significant price.

Approximately 250 mountain lions have been deliberately hunted down and killed by Nevada Wildlife Services, the federal government predator killing program, hired by NDOW/NBWC to do so.

These lions were not killed because of livestock depredation, taking personal pets, or endangering public safety.

Nor were they killed because it was shown beyond a reasonable doubt that they were interfering with the success of the bighorn program.

They were killed simply because they lived on public lands near bighorn sheep or where NDOW/NBWC were contemplating a new release.

Mountain lions and bighorn sheep have lived together for eons of time.

Some mountain lions occasionally kill and eat bighorns as part of their natural diet. Other lions, perhaps most, prefer deer. An occasional lion may specialize in bighorns as a dietary item.

None of that constitutes a legitimate reason to destroy an apex species – a charismatic public asset as well – on a hope and a prayer that somehow it will benefit the proliferation of bighorn sheep in a state where the species is already doing well.

In critical ways, wildlife management of apex species in Nevada and around the West is not about science, despite agency claims to the contrary.

This ‘war on predators’ is wildlife management agencies picking winners and losers based on personal value judgements of licensees, agencies, and wildlife commissions.

It is about wildlife management agencies and licensees assigning certain wildlife species a ‘most favored’ status while diminishing other species-inconvenient to them-to a lesser, even disposable status.

It is also contrary to the public’s increasing interest in biodiversity as measured by public surveys.

When the public in Nevada hears pronouncements from wildlife officials or licensees about their love and concern for ‘wildlife’, in truth they are speaking almost exclusively about mule deer, elk, pronghorn (antelope) and bighorn sheep.

Mountain lions, coyotes, ravens, jackrabbits, and other species do not share that designation, even though many such species have important roles in our ecosystem as Nature’s regulators, janitors, food sources and other duties.

As science moves ahead in its relentless process of discovering new and important things about critical apex/keystone species and how to create and protect biodiversity, wildlife management agencies seem stuck in the past, operating with ancient mythology and outdated ideas regarding predator/prey relationships that were popular 100 years ago.

Could this mean, then, that wildlife management agencies, hanging on to wildlife management practices easily challenged by current science, will become even less observant of science in the face of advancing knowledge?

If wildlife management agencies in Nevada and across the West continue their ‘war’ on apex species such as coyotes, ravens, wolves, mountain lions, grizzly bears, seals, cormorants, and other species under the mistaken impression that the public agrees with this decades-old, discredited philosophy, perhaps a changing of the guard will come sooner than later.

You’ve had your chance.

Now it’s time for democracy, fairness, and biodiversity to come to the table.

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