Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The Lack of the Landscape of Fear in Eastern Forests --Guest Post--

    The recent article in the Washington Post by Sarah Kaplan highlighted a recently published scientific article demonstrating how fear of large predators can establish a “landscape of fear” in their prey, in this case a smaller, meso-predator, the raccoon. Because prey will be reluctant to go to areas where there is a high risk that they will be killed, fear can have profound effects on their behavior and spatial use of the landscape. The avoidance of high risk areas then cascades through to all levels of the ecosystem. As the originator of the ecological concept of the landscape of fear, it is obviously satisfying to see experimental support of the model I proposed. However, beyond personal satisfaction, I find the results of this work to have tremendous implications to the whole Eastern forest ecosystem.

    As the authors concluded and Ms Kaplan aptly pointed out, the lack of a landscape fear can have immense and ecologically harmful impacts across a whole ecosystem. And that is what is happening across the entire eastern forest. When white-tailed deer returned to the East in the late 20th century, they have returned to a landscape lacking the original large predators, wolves and cougars… a landscape lacking fear. As a consequence, deer have not only increased to excessive numbers but are free to roam around the landscape eating whatever they want, wherever they want, and whenever they want. 

    The ecological results of this uncontrolled herbivory by deer are being documented all across the East. Foresters complain deer are hindering reforestation by “vacuuming up” tree seedlings they plant. All across existing forests, the lack of survival of native tree seedling is halting the regeneration of these forests as old trees die. On the forest floor, the diversity of native flowering plants is decreasing, being replaced by invasive species unpalatable to deer. In particular, the ginseng industry is suffering as deer eat the emerging plants before humans can harvest them. Although not as well documented, the removal of ground cover plant species by deer is affecting the survival of ground nesting birds and may even be the cause of the decline in the New England cottontail rabbit.

    More closer to us personally, excess numbers of deer give most of the eastern states the dubious honor of being the top states for deer-car collisions, resulting in thousands of injuries and an excess of 100 deaths per year. High rates of Lyme disease, requiring the association between ticks and deer can also likely be attributed to the uncontrolled deer numbers and movements across the landscape.

    These and more demonstrate that the eastern ecosystems are declining under the sheer number and free movement of deer across a landscape lacking of fear. It is now accepted that to return a prey without its predator is an ecological blunder, a blunder that can only be rectified by the concurrent return of the predators, the return of the landscape of fear. This is why I and many others, in particular, the Cougar Rewilding Foundation, have been calling for the reintroduction of cougars to the East. There is abundant habitat for cougars across much of the East and contrary to popular myths, cougars are not particularly dangerous. The now famous cougar, P22 in Southern California has amply demonstrated that cougars can easily live harmoniously within heavily populated areas. 

    The return of cougars would likely reduce the excessive number of deer somewhat but more importantly, they would keep the remaining deer in their ecological role by fear and prevent them from the massive destruction they are currently causing. Cougars would establish a landscape of fear that would create refuges in high risk areas for favored plant species of deer, maintaining forest diversity and allowing regeneration of the forest to occur. As cougars are most effective along forest edges in capturing their prey, deer might be more reluctant to use forest edges along highways, reducing deer-car collisions and saving lives.

    These and many more safety and ecological reasons clearly justify the return of cougars to the East. They would be relatively good wildlife neighbors and provide valuable ecological benefits and services that would help restore the ecological health of eastern forests. This article reported in the Washington Post demonstrates that the science is solidly behind the need for cougars in the East. What is lacking is the social will to do the ecologically right thing, return cougars to the east where they belong.

By Dr. John W. Laundré

I was born and raised in the Midwest (Wisconsin) and received my bachelors and masters degrees there.  I received my PhD from Idaho State University in 1979.  Since then, I have been working in large mammal predator-prey ecology for over 30 years and have studied predators and their prey in the western U.S. and northern Mexico.  My experience includes working with cougars, wolves, coyotes, bobcats, deer, elk, bison, and bighorn sheep.  I have conducted one of the longest (17 years) studies of cougar ecology and behavior to date and have published over 15 scientific articles both on this work and work conducted in Mexico.  I am the originator of the concept of the landscape of fear that proposed that fear of prey for their predators drives many, if not all ecological processes.  The one important aspect of this concept is that predators become instrumental in maintaining the balance between prey species and their habitat, not so much by killing their prey but affecting how they use the landscape.  I am the author of the book, Phantoms of the Prairie  The Return of Cougars to the Midwest that looks at the phenomenon of cougars actually moving back into the Great Plains region of the U.S.  I am currently living in Southern California where  I am the Assistant Director of the James San Jacinto Mountains Natural Reserve of the University of California at Riverside. I am the vice president of the Cougar Rewilding Foundation whose goal is the eventual re-establishment of viable cougar populations in the Eastern U.S. 

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