OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

“Ecology of Fear,” Role of Large Predators Explored in New Documentary Film

04/27/2009

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A premiere showing of a documentary film will be held Monday, May 11, based on the pioneering work of two Oregon State University researchers who have demonstrated that large predators may be essential to the health of stream and forest ecosystems.

“Lords of Nature: Life in a Land of Great Predators” will be shown at 7 p.m. in Milam Auditorium, 2520 S.W. Campus Way, on the OSU campus. The event is free and open to the public, and will include a question and answer session after the film.

The film was produced by Green Fire Productions, narrated by Peter Coyote, and the showing is sponsored by the OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, and the Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society. The documentary will also be shown on May 9 in Bend, Ore. See the web site for a complete list of showings in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and several Rocky Mountain states, and more information on the film.

The film makers, Karen and Ralf Meyer, will attend this screening, along with OSU forestry scientists William Ripple and Robert Beschta, the subjects of the film.

The documentary explores the role that wolves and cougars have historically played in the health of natural ecosystems, controlling both the population level and behavior of large grazing animals such as deer and elk. When the predators disappear, research has found, overgrazing has had impacts on everything from riparian zones and tree survival to the decline of other plant and animal species and major loss of biodiversity.

In recent years, Ripple and Beschta have studied this phenomenon, and also chronicled the recovery of plant and stream ecosystems once large predators such as wolves in Yellowstone National Park were reintroduced to the region. Their studies in Yellowstone, Zion National Park, Yosemite National Park, Olympic National Park and elsewhere have gained national attention and spawned new interest in the role of large predators in ecosystem health.

The researchers discovered that large predators help control the numbers of grazing animals, but possibly more important, change their behavior: Elk and deer that fear predation stay away from some exposed, streamside locations, allowing vegetation to recover and trees to grow to adulthood. This little understood concept is now being called “the ecology of fear.” More information on this broader topic can be found on the web.

The new film outlines the problem, its historical roots as predators such as wolves were exterminated and cougar populations reduced, and the potential of the land to recover when predators return and a natural balance is once again established. In addition to exploring the work of the OSU researchers, this production ventures to the rural communities of Minnesota, interviewing ranchers, farmers, hunters, and wildlife managers who are living among more than 3,000 wolves, the highest population in the lower 48 states.

The producers also profile two of the largest sheep operators in Idaho, who are having success raising sheep in a land once again populated by wolves. The film suggests that with proper technique, people and predators can co-exist. The emerging ecological crisis caused by the loss of large predators and now explored in this documentary was predicted, in fact, by the famous naturalist Aldo Leopold in 1949.

"I have lived to see state after state extirpate its wolves," Leopold wrote 60 years ago. "I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anemic desuetude, and then to death."