The Case for Large Carnivores

Views I saw of the stunning Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone in Yellowstone National Park when I hiked along the ridge with my family.
Credit: Photo: Annie Merritt

Guest blog post written by Annie Merritt

I spent practically every summer of my childhood going to Yosemite National Park. Some years, I even visited more than once. The memories I have of Yosemite—hiking Half Dome, swimming in the cold Merced River, seeing black bears on the trails—will stay with me for life, and it is to those experiences in Yosemite and other protected natural areas that I owe my love of nature and interest in studying environmental science and policy.

But while national parks are wonderful—and necessary—my research this summer as a wildlife fellow with NRDC has taught me that national parks are not enough. Protecting discrete, disconnected areas may not effectively conserve wildlife, such as large carnivores, which need vast areas of protected—and connectedhabitat.

My main project this summer was to create a publicly accessible story map about grizzly bear conservation, with a specific focus on connecting the isolated population in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem with other populations through grizzly bear corridors. The idea is that, when properly managed and protected, wildlife corridors can help reconnect habitats that have been fragmented due to development and roads, allowing wildlife to move among and between protected areas.

Before this summer, I didn't know much about large carnivore conservation. Sure, I had learned generally that all parts of an ecosystem are important to ecosystem function, so I knew that the top predators must be important. I was more interested in studying forest ecology, the broad impacts of climate change and drought, and environmental policy and law. Large carnivore conservation wasn't my focus of study—until this summer.

But here's the thing I’ve come to understand: conserving top predators actually benefits the entire ecosystem these animals are part of. For example, grizzly bears disperse seeds and increase soil nitrogen content when digging for small mammals or plants.  

Of course, I've also learned that large carnivore conservation is a controversial issue. That's certainly true in the Northern Rockies, where not everyone wants to see expanding populations of wolves and grizzly bears. It seems that one reason why large carnivores are so contentious is that many people may not be familiar with the myriad ways that large carnivores benefit ecosystems and humans. For example, research has indicated that predation can regulate disease not only in prey populations, but in other species as well. Predators may even play a significant role in regulating zoonotic diseases in humans (such as Lyme disease).

Visiting the State Capitol building in Helena after attending a Montana Fish & Wildlife Commission meeting.
Credit: Photo: Zack Strong

Large carnivores do sometimes cause economic losses to livestock producers by preying on their animals (what's known as livestock depredation). As a result, livestock producers often want to reduce or eliminate predators to protect their livestock. However, predators can also benefit livestock by preying on and removing diseased wild herbivores, thus reducing the risks of disease transmission to livestock.

At the same time, livestock-carnivore conflicts are a real problem—and the reason why NRDC's Northern Rockies office works collaboratively with state and federal wildlife agencies and livestock producers to implement non-lethal measures to reduce livestock depredation, like installing turbo fladry and electric fencing.

The complexities of coexisting with large carnivores came up as I talked to my family while we hiked one weekend on Cinnamon Creek Trail south of Bozeman. They told me about a person they'd met in Idaho who thought wolves shouldn't be there because they prey on livestock and elk. It frustrated me to hear this; I explained to my family the many ways that wolves benefit the ecosystem, and the ways they can even benefit livestock. I was confused by the mindset that wolves shouldn't be there simply because they might seem to be an inconvenience for humans, when in fact wolves belong in this ecosystem and their removal leads to many ecological problems.

Hiking Cinnamon Creek Trail: A challenging hike with almost 3,000 feet of elevation gain!
Credit: Photo: Monte Merritt

As I related all this information to my family, I realized that it can be difficult for people to recognize the often-invisible benefits of individual species, and of biodiversity as a whole. I hope that the work I did this summer and the work I do in the future will help communicate the message that human health and wellbeing—and our very survival—depend upon the health of our environment.

I spent most of this summer learning and writing about issues regarding large carnivores: their ecological role in this landscape, efforts to reduce conflicts with livestock while still protecting carnivores, and the widely disparate views people hold about species like grizzly bears and wolves. I'm so glad I had this opportunity to dive into a new topic—I've learned so much, especially about grizzly bears and connectivity conservation (and certainly about how to make a story map in ArcGIS Online!). It's hard to believe that my time here at NRDC and in Bozeman will shortly come to an end—it feels as if I only just arrived. Thank you Zack, Jenny, and Amy for making my time here in the Bozeman office such an enjoyable experience!

The author relaxing at the top of Storm Castle Peak.
Credit: Photo: Lauren Warner

Annie Merritt was the Ann Clark Environmental Fellow this summer in NRDC's Northern Rockies office in Bozeman, Montana. She graduated in 2018 from the University of California - Davis with a B.S. in Environmental Science and Management, specializing in Natural Resource Management, and a minor in Professional Writing. Annie is passionate about protecting the environment, and she especially enjoys writing about the importance of conservation and climate change adaptation. In the coming year, she will serve as a CivicSpark AmeriCorps fellow with the Delta Stewardship Council in California, assisting with the Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.