The importance of predators

owl HZTIn theory at least, the Shawangunk Ridge is home to bobcats and the occasional cougar. But who among us — even longtime diehard hikers — has ever caught a glimpse of one, aside from the stuffed and mounted specimens in the Mohonk Preserve Visitors’ Center? Not many, to be sure. As in most of wild America, the “apex predators” are long gone from our local ecosystems.

With big cats, habitat loss is usually the culprit. New York State’s once-thriving wolf population, on the other hand, was deliberately wiped out by humans; the last grey wolf in the Adirondacks was killed by a bounty hunter in the 1890s. And a recent brief burst of enthusiasm for the idea of reintroducing wolf packs to the Adirondack Park lost steam after several feasibility studies in the late 1990s and early 2000s glumly concluded that conditions were not favorable for long-term viability — due mainly to human factors.

So what happens when you lop off the top of a food chain, with the exception of human consumers? Many bad things, as it turns out. In New York State, the absence of large predators manifests as a gross overpopulation of white-tailed deer, to the chagrin of many a motorist and gardener. In Yellowstone National Park, the unchecked growth of elk herds drastically reduced stands of several important tree species, with the result that populations of other animals like beavers and foxes crashed. Coyotes moved into the wolves’ abandoned ecological niche and became pests. A wolf reintroduction program has been underway there now for several decades, but remains controversial, opposed especially by sheep ranchers.

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The more that scientists study the effects of apex predators on an ecosystem, the more they draw the conclusion that these creatures play an essential role in maintaining healthy biodiversity. That’s not to mention the fact that seeing such so-called “charismatic megafauna” in the wild, or even just knowing that they’re out there, makes nature-lovers feel that all’s right with the world. There’s a deep emotional reason why we tend to name our sports teams after cougars and timberwolves rather than elks or sheep. Predators inspire human awe and admiration in a way that their prey typically do not.

Some 70 years ago now, when most people still thought of predators as scary menaces at worst or competitors with humans at best, the eminent naturalist Aldo Leopold recognized the crucial place that they occupy in keeping ecosystems balanced. He was one of the first to suggest the idea of reintroduction programs in large wilderness areas like our Western national parks. Leopold’s writings and activism are part of the inspiration for an award-winning documentary film titled Lords of Nature: Life in a Land of Great Predators, produced by Karen and Ralf Meyer of Green Fire Productions and narrated by actor Peter Coyote. Successful wolf reintroduction programs in Minnesota and Idaho are among the wild locales visited in the documentary, which is filmed in high-definition format.

Lords of Nature will be shown at SUNY New Paltz on Thursday, Feb. 7 as the first in this winter’s Shawangunk Ridge Free Public Lecture Series, presented annually by the Shawangunk Ridge Biodiversity Partnership (SRBP). Following the 7 p.m. screening, keynote speaker Dr. John Laundre, Biology instructor at SUNY-Oswego and vice president of the Cougar Rewilding Foundation, will highlight how the predator-led recovery of Western ecosystems may provide a solution to collapsing Eastern forests. For the record, so far nobody’s talking seriously about bringing cougars back to the Gunks; but the reintroduction of the highly charismatic peregrine falcon to the top of the Ridge’s avian food chain seems to be going well so far.

“Secrets of the Shawangunks: Predation and Migration” is the unifying theme of this year’s SRBP Lecture Series, all of whose presentations will begin at 7 p.m. on Thursday evenings in Lecture Center 102 on the SUNY New Paltz campus. Admission is free and no reservations are necessary. The series continues on Feb. 14 with a talk on “Raptor Migration in the Shawangunks,” featuring Thomas Sarro, professor of Biology at Mount Saint Mary College, who also happens to be a Mohonk Preserve research associate. For over 20 years Sarro has been observing and studying raptors from the Mohonk Preserve Hawk Watch. Learn what raptors are commonly seen during the fall migration, key identification tips for soaring raptors, observations over time and recent trends observed throughout the region — which presumably will include the pleasure of being able to see bald eagles in the Hudson Valley once again.

On Feb. 21, Cara Lee, Mark King, Rebecca Shirer and Laura Heady from the Nature Conservancy and the Hudson River Estuary Program/Cornell University will shed light on “The Catskills/Shawangunk Connection.” The team of conservationists will explain how local conservation organizations are working in partnership to promote connectivity between these two important landscapes. Knowing that the preservation and restoration of seasonal migration corridors is a key strategy toward habitat protection, this should be an enlightening discussion. “Scientists predict that in the future, the Shawangunks will be an important landscape linkage for wildlife movement in response to climate change,” says Lee. “This is another compelling reason to protect the Ridge and linkages to large forests to the south and to the north.”

On Feb. 28, Chris Bowser, education coordinator for the Hudson River National Estuarine Research Reserve, will give a presentation on “Eel Migration in the Hudson River.” The tiny, easy-to-miss “glass eel” is in decline in the Hudson River, causing a ripple effect on many other species in this unique habitat. Learn about this amazing animal and the efforts being made by citizens all along the Hudson to collect critical data to study its migrations and populations. If your kids have taken AP Environmental Studies at New Paltz High School, they’ve probably been among these citizen wildlife-counters, since the class visits Black Creek Preserve in Esopus, nets in hand, during the glass eel spawning run each year.

The Shawangunk Ridge Free Public Lecture Series is co-sponsored by the SUNY New Paltz Biology Department. For more information on the “Secrets of the Shawangunks: Predation and Migration” presentations, or about the Shawangunk Ridge Biodiversity Partnership, visit www.mohonkpreserve.org/events, or contact Cara Lee at the Nature Conservancy at 255-9051 or Gretchen Reed at the Mohonk Preserve at 255-0919. For directions to the Lecture Center and a campus map, see www.newpaltz.edu/map. No parking permit is required if you park after 6:30 p.m.

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