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Our Native Carnivores: A Historical Perspective

Gustave Dore 

Our farmers today live within a specific point in history on our American continent, yet the present time has been greatly influenced by the human history of the past.

As a conservation biologist whose focus is large carnivores, I find that historical perspectives regarding our understanding of our place within Earth’s communities and the behavior that flows from those perspectives is essential to understanding our present day relationship with carnivores. How we view them and how we treat them today have their foundations in the past.

History of Human Relationship with Carnivores

St. Pierre So in this, my first blog post for MOTHER EARTH NEWS, I want to take you back in history, sharing with you worldviews and the actions that expressed those views, as Europeans settled on the American continent.

Historians write that by the 1500s, Europe had already decimated its large carnivores, such as wolves, and relegated them to remote mountain areas. Wolves were equated with evil, the devil, and sensual proclivity — and so the story of Little Red Riding Hood.

There was no understanding at that time in history regarding the importance of carnivores in maintaining biodiversity, controlling prey species’ populations, and protecting the community of life from disease. And, of course, along with the destruction of carnivore populations, Europe also decimated the landscape, cutting down whole forests and destroying topsoil.

So imagine yourself as a European coming to this new land where all life was abundant and large carnivores were present everywhere on the continent, where great forests stood tall, and the earth was covered with rich soil. This landscape and the wild beings that lived there were both frightening and foreign to them. They had to make it seem more like home: Forests were rapidly clearcut and large carnivores were hunted down at every turn, until they were no longer on the landscape.

The farmers who raised livestock in this new land did not bring with them any animal husbandry practices that helped protect their farm animals from potential predation, because there were few if any large predators left in Europe who would be a threat to their farm animals.

So, killing carnivores was the only answer to the presence of these predators in this new land. And, therefore, began the relationship of farmers to the American landscape and its wildlife.

Moving on in history, for generations American farmers have lived without large carnivores, but the landscape slowly became sickened by the lack of their presence. And most times, practices such as the use of herbicides and poisons became the norm — for Nature was seen as the enemy that needed to be banished or controlled.

This has been and continues to be the case in large industrial farming of monocultures like soybeans for example, and vast areas of our prairies where only large numbers of sheep and cows are allowed to graze on the native grasses, while wild carnivores and their prey have been driven off these their native homes.

The Return Native Carnivores

But in the last 40 years, we have learned much about the value of our native carnivores, and how important they are to a healthy landscape, and how that healthy landscape protects all life from disease, and that includes us. But nothing has been passed down to us from past generations about how to live with our native carnivores. So today we are challenged to ride the sharp curve of exponential learning in this regard.

Changes in the Land Farming itself is changing today, as our generation has observed the dire results of industrial farming. More and more young farmers are taking up organic farming, and raising their farm animals on healthy vibrant pastures.

But as these worthwhile changes are taking place, so also are carnivores returning to the landscape once more. Why their return? The clear cuts of past centuries have grown now into forests where abundant prey species now thrive.

So how should our farmers of this present generation respond to the return of native carnivores? May I suggest that FEAR not be your response, for it will cause our generation to repeat the past? Instead, let seeking KNOWLEDGE of your wild neighbors be your response, and with that knowledge adjust how you farm. In my following blog posts, I will endeavor to share with you what we know about these important carnivores, and what you can do to live well with them.

In the meantime, I would highly recommend the following books for you to read to understand important historical perspectives: Changes in the Land by historian William Cronon, revised edition and The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy by Kirkpatrick Sale. Request them from your local library. Until next time.

Little Red Riding Hood drawing by Gustave Dore in 1883; photograph of Maine forest by Jym St. Pierre 

Geri is a conservation biologist whose work focuses on carnivores and our human relationships with them. In addition to research and collaboration with fellow biologists in Maine, she educates communities about carnivores and how we can coexist with them. You can find her at Coyote Lives in Maine.


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