Wolf, Bear, Lynx, Wolverine and Wilderness
Several arguments are dealing with large predators from time to time. Why are they considered critically important in maintaining the integrity of ecosystems and so are critically important for wilderness? First of all, ecological interactions are initiated by top predators. Secondly, wide-ranging predators usually require large cores of protected landscapes for foraging and seasonal movements. Thirdly, connectivity is required, because core reserves are typically not large enough to maintain sustainable viable predators’ populations.
If we kill off wolves and other wild hunters, we’ll lose not only the prominent species, but also the key to ecological and evolutionary process of top-down regulation. Large carnivores are essential for landscape-level ecological restoration as well, for the restoration of other highly interactive species and the dynamism of natural processes, such as fire and flood. This can be seen in the video on how wolves impact the flow of rivers. These are all critically important elements of wilderness.
If native large carnivores are forced from their region, their reintroduction and recovery should be the core element of the local wilderness conservation strategy. Wolves, lynx, brown bears, otters and other top carnivores are already restored in many corners of Europe, where a suitable habitat remains or can be restored for them. Obviously, large areas of Europe have been modified by humans widely and support such large human populations and intensive agriculture or forestry, that their reintroduction and recovery is not always feasible. Nevertheless, without the goal of reintroduction and recovery of large predators, we are closing our eyes to the fact what wilderness really means and demands. Several wildlife biologists believe, that “Wilderness without animals (and particularly predators) is dead – dead scenery. Animals without wilderness are a closed book.”
However we should make clear that wilderness doesn’t always mean a ‘safari’. Lack of animal visibility doesn’t mean poor wilderness and low conservation value, but too easy visibility of animals and particularly carnivores can actually be a sign that something isn’t going well. From the visitor perspective that’s obviously a top experience. What can be more exciting than to see wolves or bears roaming freely in the wild nature? Nevertheless too much observation, too much ‘peaceful’ interaction between animals and humans is changing the behaviour of carnivores (and not only carnivores) and their level of awareness with many negative consequences.
The ‘no hunting’ policy in many protected areas often ends up with reducing the escaping distance of many animals, particularly large herbivores. Herbivores have already learnt how to use human presence as an advantage, and they protect themselves from being a prey for carnivores. The result is that grazing herbivores can be found very close to the villages, roads and recreation centres. So observing grazing animals along the road, very often directly from the vehicles, is not an artificial natural experience any more, it is obviously a big attraction for visitors but unhealthy for the animals.
Great social-economical-biodiversity value
Wilderness has a great social-economical-biodiversity value. We Europeans started to explore and appreciate this part of the European natural heritage only in the past few years. Public support and interest are extremely important to promote this momentum. However we should be aware that inappropriate management of these last remnants of European wilderness areas can damage them. For example replacing extractive uses such as hunting, logging or grazing by commercial ‘safaris’ will not only affect the behaviour of animals badly, but has nothing to do with the wilderness concept.