When we kill keystone species, we do so failing to recognize the irreparable damage the loss of these creatures has on both our wilderness areas as well as the environment.
Two things occurred recently in both Canada and the United States that should concern, if not alarm you, greatly: the slaughter of both bears and wolves was given the go-ahead by the Canadian and US governments.
Here's why you should give a toss.
Bear and wolf populations in both the US and Canada have dropped significantly since the mid-20th century, where it has been estimated that bear species such as the grizzly had disappeared from 53% of their original range, and most wolf species have been declared by the IUCN Red List as being vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered.
Recovery initiatives have taken place to help boost the population of species like wolves; perhaps the most notorious recovery effort was the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park in the late 90s, which had prior to been lacking wolves for nearly five decades. Though there has been little-noted success in bear recovery initiatives, certain organizations (such as the National Parks Conservation Association) have been working to bring back the healthy population of bears like grizzlies for years.
Both bears and wolves have a reputation for being among the world's most majestic and revered species, but they are also known as keystone species, animals which play a unique yet critical role in the way ecosystems function. Keystone species are, in part, responsible for the health of certain ecosystems, and if they cease to exist or lack severely in number, those ecosystems may also cease to exist or suffer greatly. Grizzly bears, for instance, play a role as ecosystem engineers, as their hunting methods for food help to disperse grains, seeds, and soil. Wolves, similarly, help to maintain ecosystems through their hunting and eating patterns.
But bears and wolves do not exist in great numbers around the globe; the Spirit Bear and Rainforest Wolf, two keystone species found in British Columbia's Great Bear Rainforest, are said to exist nowhere else on Earth. Grizzly bears also exist there, as they do in Alaska. The Canadian and US governments recently approved the slaughter of both bears and wolves in regions where their numbers are already critical. It would be a mistake to assume that we have "enough" of these species' in zoos or other areas of the world to "make up for" the decrease in populations in both Canada and the US. Truthfully, we don't.
Take British Columbia: each year in April, hunters are given the "ok" to head into the wilderness and trophy hunt grizzly bears; the same tradition continued into this year, despite overwhelming poll results indicating that 91% of British Columbians are against the trophy hunting of grizzlies. Wolves are also killed in Canadian provinces like British Columbia and Alberta through culling, an initiative set up by various Canadian governments to purportedly help "save" declining caribou numbers, despite ecologists and conservationists finding that killing wolves does not aid in the recovery of species like caribou. What's more, the BC government took a cruel and more radical approach to culling wolves in their province through the phenomenon of the Judas wolf; according to the Wildlife Defence League, a wolf was fitted with a GPS collar to alert the government of his location and came to be known as "Ghost ."
"Ghost is the “Judas” wolf for a cull program designed by the BC Liberals to slaughter entire packs, including mothers and pups ...the “Judas” wolf is used as a tool by hunters in helicopters to unintentionally betray the location of his pack ....At some point during the cull, Ghost was trapped, collared and released. He unknowingly led Bighorn Helicopters to the location of his pack, who were then gunned down as they ran in panic from the helicopter that tormented them. When the slaughter ceased and blood stained the snow, Ghost was left alive, intentionally. This solitary wolf would be tracked as he instinctively searched for a new family, only to be traumatized yet again as his new pack is slaughtered before his eyes."
Essentially, the BC Liberals used Ghost as a tool for finding and killing innocent wolves under the pretense that they were "saving" the dwindling caribou population.
British Columbia has come under fire for more than just its inhumane use and treatment of wolves; since 1975, nearly 14,000 grizzlies have been killed in the province, mostly for trophy, where 87% of the bears killed were slaughtered by licensed hunters. On average, approximately 300 grizzlies are killed every year in BC, and it is estimated that 34% of those bears are female. Female grizzlies are known to reproduce later in their lives and give birth to few cubs, which means the trophy hunting and killing of female grizzlies diminishes this species' chances of recovery and survival.
In March 2017, the US government repealed an Obama-era rule which sought to protect much of Alaska's most iconic wildlife by banning the hunting of it. The US Senate recently voted 52-47 to reverse the ruling and also sought to overturn a USFWS rule which prohibited certain controversial hunting practices related to Alaskan wildlife. Now, hunters will be allowed to shoot and kill bears and wolves for trophy; they will, in fact, be allowed to kill these animals and their offspring directly in their dens, which means hibernating bears and newly-born wolves will be killed right where they sleep.
The purpose of this reverse ruling? To help "protect" the moose and caribou populations by killing the species which prey upon them. Sound familiar? Well, it should: it's the same reason given by the BC government to kill wolves in the province. According to The Dodo, hunters will also be allowed to shoot these animals from planes, use steel-jawed leg traps, and wire snares.
It would appear that the overwhelming discontent amongst those in favor of the slaughter of bears and wolves across North America revolves mostly around their "right" to hunt; for many, being told they cannot hunt an animal seems an affront to their right to do so, much like the US Senate believes it is the state's right to manage wildlife - and not a regulatory body such as the USFWS. Some lands are considered wildlife refuge lands and, because the use and abuse of our natural resources generally boils down to political interests, many feel almost offended by the notion that the state or government cannot control those refuge lands.
Not that they want to keep them a refuge, though.
Of course, vested interests in both hunting and politics are often seen as going hand-in-hand; like light and dark, good and evil, it seems that one cannot have politics without hunting interests when it comes to the management and conservation of natural resources (like, say, fellow sentient beings ). What it truly comes down to is the control governments want to have over those resources, and it's why we continue to think of protected lands and species' as "resources." What else could we call something or some things which we use for our own ambitions, goals, and needs?
But here's the catch: without these keystone species, ecosystems and our environment are impacted severely, in ways many of us cannot fathom until it is too late to reverse the damage done. Species such as bears and wolves have a direct impact on every other species of plant and animal within their ecosystems and on their food chains; when these species begin to disappear, other species are inevitably put at risk, even those which exist as prey animals for predator species like bears or wolves. We must also remember that what happens to one species both directly and indirectly impacts us. When we let the political interests of governments and politicians get in the way of what actually matters regarding conservation, we allow for the degradation of wildlife and environments we seriously cannot afford to lose, especially in an already troubled climate and atmosphere where species are dying out, land and water resources are dwindling, and natural habitats are consistently destroyed.
You may hope to never encounter a wolf while on a hike or run into a bear while camping and exploring the beautiful outdoors, but there is a chance you'll never even have the possibility of seeing these majestic creatures in their natural habitats, their numbers healthy and well again, in your own lifetime.