To kill large predators such as bears, mountain lions, and wolves for the purpose of protecting and expanding hoofed animal populations was a mistake in the nation's early days. Indiscriminate slaughter in the Nineteenth Century decimated predators' numbers in the Rocky mountain region and threw the balance of nature out of whack.
Unfortunately, the lessons of the past have not always taken hold. The state of Colorado is a recent case in point. It has decided to allow 135 mountain lions and 225 bears to be killed above and beyond regular hunting quotas over a nine year period. It is a plan supposedly to facilitate an increase in the estimated 400,000 mule deer in the region. Licenses to hunt these animals generate substantial revenue for the state and officials believe 560,000 would be an optimum population to support the sporting life.
Let's not dwell on the fact that 400,000 mule deer roaming the region doesn't seem like a desperate shortfall.
By contrast, the health of the far smaller population of large predators is problematic. Indeed, Colorado officials admit they have no solid estimate of the predators' numbers and rely largely on anecdotal sightings of the elusive creatures.
What is clear is that the decline in the overall mule deer population in the area has been caused by loss of habitat from human development, not a predator killing spree. Indeed, under natural conditions, populations of the hunted and hunter species in the wild fluctuate in synergistic fashion to create an equilibrium.
Rather than being typecast as villains, large predators should be credited with sustaining the biodiversity and fluidity of ecosystems. Without their significant presence, their prey's numbers would explode and overrun the environment. An unsustainable proliferation of hoofed animals leads to overgrazing that destroys native vegetation on which birds and other creatures rely.
Humans can suffer too from predator imbalance. Eradication of virtually all large predators in the eastern third of the country has resulted in the unchecked spread of the deer population. These animals are carriers of the tick that transmits Lyme disease, a potentially debilitating malady that has become a threat where it was previously a rarity.
Conversely, reintroduction of large predators can revive the health of an ecosystem. In Yellowstone National Park, the return of wolves trimmed an overabundance of elks and their excessive browsing. As a consequence, a comeback occurred of depleted aspen and willow stands and the animal life they supported.
It is true that predators can stray and cause losses to ranchers' livestock, but if prey is plentiful in the wild, such conflicts are greatly diminished.
As for Colorado, if it wishes to cater to the mule deer hunting crowd, it should not do so at the expense of the fragile population of predators at the top of the wilderness food chain.