Biology, Commentary

My, what sharp teeth you have!

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Our neighbors to the north in Wisconsin recently took issue with a federal court ruling in late September that overturned the Bush administration’s decision to remove gray wolves of the Great Lakes region from the endangered species list. The editorial board of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that the wolf population in the state has more than doubled—from 250 in 2001 to more than 550 today—which is good, and that farmers struggle to defend their crops and livestock against these predators, which is bad. (For more on Wisconsin’s environmental past and future, be sure to check out The Vanishing Present: Wisconsin’s Changing Lands, Waters, and Wildlife edited by Donald M. Waller and Thomas P. Rooney.)
All this talk of wolves and prey got us thinking about Joel Berger’s new book, The Better to Eat You With, out next month. Maybe it’s not the wolves that are the problem; maybe it’s the prey. Perhaps they’ve forgotten to fear wolves in the time their population had dwindled. Berger witnessed a similar phenomenon in Yellowstone: after a sixty-year absence of wolves from the park the elk had forgotten to fear a species that had survived by eating them for hundreds of millennia. His book follows his quest to answer three important questions about the relationship between predator and prey: Can naive animals avoid extinction when they encounter reintroduced carnivores? To what extent is fear culturally transmitted? And how can a better understanding of current predator-prey behavior help demystify past extinctions and inform future conservation? We think Berger’s insights could be valuable as our northern neighbors confront their wolf problem.
For more on these fearsome creatures, check out the appropriately titled Wolves: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation by L. David Mech and Luigi Boitani or read an excerpt. And for more on the predator-prey relationship, try Tim Caro’s Antipredator Defenses in Birds and Mammals. Or, of course, there is always Little Red Riding Hood. But that didn’t turn out so well for our heroine, did it?