A Fun-Loving Guide to the Natural World for Kids and Adults

Could Wild Runners Save the Wild?

I certainly love our dogs. Suka and Gryphon are friendly, beautiful, and playful. They are also allowed the run of the lands surrounding our home. As half-wild dogs, they fill their days with lazing in the sunshine, exploring the woods, and chasing animals.

It’s this last that bothers me. As companion hunters, they have learned how to herd rabbits into their jaws. Once or twice they’ve cornered and killed a raccoon. I can’t be sure, but I think that once they even killed one of the wild turkeys that have played such a powerful part in my own life.

With their tendency to ravage the wildlife, I’ve always considered them a negative impact on the local ecosystem. When they bring a rabbit back to the yard and sit down to share it, I admit that I sometimes have looked forward to the future, when their lives are lived and we no longer have dogs. Instead of torn and broken rabbits lying in the snow or grass, I imagine rabbits under our bird feeder, deer coming into the yard, and having to chase raccoons off the deck with a stick. In short, I imagine a healthier ecosystem where Rebecca and I are able to re-connect with the wildlife that our dogs spend their lives terrorizing.


Lately, we’ve been reading Where the Wild Things Were by William Stolzenburg. In the book, the author presents a convincing argument, citing many field ecologists’ work, that apex predators play a key role in maintaining healthy ecosystems. Interestingly, they do this not only by regulating the number of their prey, but perhaps more significantly, by creating a culture of ‘fear’ (I’d prefer to call it a culture of awareness or vigilance) among the prey. In other words, the prey’s behavior is altered when they are aware that predators share the forest with them. In Yellowstone, the scientists found that elk tend to avoid the edges of streams when wolves are present. Stream edges are places where elk can be easily trapped by wolves, and the elk know it. Without as many elk, the willows can grow, which creates healthy stream banks for many species. The result is that the riparian ecosystems have seen a powerful recovery since the wolves have been re-introduced.

Here at our own land, we’ve often noticed that our six acre plot seems strangely abundant when it comes to certain plant species. We have raspberries and black raspberries. In the spring, the trillium blooms, and our woods are home to bloodroot, soloman’s seal, hepatica, and jack-in-the-pulpit, all in abundance. Yet, during our hikes in the surrounding woodlands, we’ve found that these plants are much more difficult to come by. We haven’t seen trillium in any of the hundreds of acres that surround us, there are scant wild berries to be found in the 250 acres of woods and fields that the neighboring farmer lets us hike, and other plant species have become rare hidden gems scattered through forests that can sometimes feel a little empty.

We had never thought much of this until we began to read Stolzenburg’s book, and to consider that there might be a reason for the green abundance on our land. This is the place where our dogs most often roam, play, and hunt. Might Suka and Gryphon inspire a culture of vigilance among the prey species — the main browsers — in our ecosystem? They’ve never killed a deer (the photo above is of a deer that a hunter shot that later died of its wounds — the dogs dragged parts of it back home to enjoy), but they certainly keep the deer running. As for rabbits, the dogs play at least a small part in keeping the numbers down.

Now I find myself pondering something new. When the dogs are gone, perhaps we will indeed have the rabbits and deer coming back to our land. But what, I wonder, will happen to the bloodroot, the soloman’s seal, and the lovely, pink-tinged trillium?

A Wild Thought

This thinking has brought me full-circle back to my year of chasing wild turkeys. What might happen if (in addition to re-introducing apex predators), humans took up a new ‘sport’ — Wild Running? Might not cross-country, on/off- trail, and ultra runners have some fun, connect with nature, and also do some ecological good if they began taking their running out into the wildlands? What if humans began chasing animals?

I know, it’s an odd proposal. Yet consider what it might do. The Wild Runner’s goal wouldn’t have to be to catching an animal. Indeed, if an animal turned out to be injured (as did one deer I began chasing last autumn), the runner could give up the chase and search for a healthy animal to pursue. The goal wouldn’t be to catch animals — only to give chase. The human runners would be fulfilling half the role of the apex predators — inspiring a culture of vigilance among the prey. If enough people in a given area took up the ‘sport’, it might alter the prey’s behavior enough that some of the browse might return. With a return of the plants, native butterflies and songbirds might come back to the area. Insects and amphibians that were no longer supported in the ecosystem might find it suitable once again.

At the very least, it would get people out into the woods more. I can envision a culture of minimally-shod or barefoot runners enjoying long runs through the wild places, connecting with nature and bringing back stories of their adventures. At best, if such runners were set loose into areas that have suffered “trophic cascade” (a loss of numerous species that is triggered by the removal of apex predators), it might alter the browsers’ behavior enough to make at least a small difference in the health of various ecosystems throughout the world.

What do you say? Anyone want to join me on a Wild Run, chasing the deer or the elk?


16 Responses to “Could Wild Runners Save the Wild?”

  1. I think this all depends on your preferences when outside enjoying nature. If your main goal is to hunt wild turkey, or deer then the thought of anyone or anything chasing those creatures haphazardly around the forested areas would enlist the anger of many hunters. Many hunters go out of their way to shoot dogs left to roam wild, believing that these dogs are causing an unfair balance in the ecosystem and scaring off any deer or turkey that they wish to try their hand (and firearm) at hunting.

    If you enjoy watching deer, rabbit or other prey species roam your property and are confronted with someones “pets” giving chase to those creatures that bring you so much joy. You will most likely experience anger and frustration that the owners of said dogs cannot control their pets.

    If you love to roam in the wilderness and search for plants, be it wild flowers, saplings, mushrooms or any number of other flora then perhaps what you suggest would be well received. Although picturing people in our area giving chase to wild animals is admittedly quite humorous. Living in a rural area in NW Missouri such behavior would probably buy you a night in jail for drunkenness.

    All in all what you suggest makes sense to a degree. There are many books that talk about the predator prey relationship and point out the necessity for apex predators to keep prey animals in check. In truth prey animals generally do better when predators are there to keep their numbers down to ward of the tendency toward disease or starvation, such as occurs in over populated areas. A book that I enjoyed and I know I’ve mentioned to you before is “The Prodigal Summer” by Barbara Kingsolver. She eludes to this relationship in her study of Coyotes in the Appalachian Mountains.

    Your post is definitely food for thought, I will be curious to see what other readers think.

  2. Hi MObugs!

    Good points all around. The area farmers, most of whom are hunters, do take it quite seriously if dogs chase deer, just as you noted. Luckily, our dogs tend to only scare them off of our property.

    Many of my friends are hunters, and most support the re-introduction of predators, even suggesting that it might be more exciting to hunt if the deer were a little more difficult to find/shoot. These same hunters, however, only support limited re-introduction of apex predators — a far cry from what some of the ecologists in Stolzenburg’s book suggest.

    We don’t feel like we have enough evidence yet, but the suggestion is that many of the ecosystems that Rebecca or I once considered healthy and vibrant are actually relatively sterile and robbed of most of the life forms that a comparatively healthy ecosystem would support. The author draws a remarkable contrast between Zion National Park and a neighboring valley — the valley demonstrating what the relatively stark Zion might once have looked like prior to the removal of predators and the introduction of regular park visitors.

    We’ll be interested to hear what others think as well. In many ways, this comes down to the relationship between nature and humans. Is nature here for us to utilize, are we meant to be stewards of the planet, or are we meant to protect the planet even if it inconveniences or displeases us? Perhaps it’s not actually about what’s ‘meant’, but rather what choices we make as a species. Some would argue that the Earth is plenty big enough to support our current ways, while others feel we’re on the verge of ecological collapse. Perhaps only time will tell the story that we’re now all writing together . . .

  3. Oh, MObugs,

    Forgot to mention that it does indeed have a humorous slant to it — imagining people chasing down, say, a country road as the police officer pulls up behind, thinking . . . “What the heck???”

    We still haven’t read “The Prodigal Summer”, but it’s on our list. It will be interesting to see if we can uncover the parallels you are mentioning!

  4. I’ve noticed in our own timbered areas that the wild flowers and other flora that should be present are not. I know many years ago our farm was heavily grazed by cattle and hogs. The understory in our woods is made up of wild thorn bushes, buck brush and various other rather noxious plants. We have an abundance of Honey Locust as well. Yet, just across the creek where no grazing took place are trout lilies, wild mushrooms, wild roses, and various other wonderful little treasures. Oak and Hickory and Wild Plum trees are more plentiful on the other side of the creek as well. This misuse of the land over long periods of time contributes to a lot of the downfall of a healthy ecosystem, maybe more so than the predator/prey relationship. When the land tries to repair itself it seems to encourage the growth of all sorts of unwelcome flora. It is sad to think of how many years it takes (if ever) to gain back what was lost. I would love to have seen our land 50 years ago before it’s demise. We are in the process now of creating appropriate quail habitat, by planting native grasses, cattle and hogs are no longer grazed in those areas and haven’t been for over 25 years. I have a friend who raises mushrooms and wants to experiment with spores of native species, and would like to use our timbered area as a testing site to see how they reproduce. I know it is a lengthy process, but it is one we enjoy. We spend so much time outside. Our family hunts, fishes and photographs depending upon what season it is. My husband is one of the farmer/hunters that cannot abide wild or half wild dogs free ranging. He and his family have long held the opinion that those dogs need to be shot. I’m not sure I share in his opinion, but I can certainly understand it. I feel the same way about feral cats. We have a healthy population of coyotes that live in a portion of timber on the backside of our property. I look forward to their haunting calls each spring. I sit outside and listen to them “talk” to each other. When the pups chime in and try their hand at calling I can’t help but smile. I’ve noticed that we have a healthy population of rabbits, and squirrels. So the presence of the coyotes just reinforces my belief that we need predators to maintain a healthy prey population.I wish more people felt a responsibility towards the land and all it contains, rather than thinking the land and it’s resources owes them something. It is that sense of entitlement that causes much of the problems our generation and future generations face in restoring over-used and mis-used natural resources.
    I can’t wait to hear what you think of Barbara Kingsolvers book.

  5. Pssst. just had to tell you I finally held ELLA!!!! She is so sweet…..can spiders be sweet? There is a post up on MObugs as proof…..LOL

  6. Hi MObugs —

    Interesting that you’re noticing this same phenomenon, apparently traced to over-grazing. Even more remarkable that you’re making a direct effort to return some of the native species. Way to go! It will be interesting to see your land fifty years from now — perhaps ‘re-wilded’ by your efforts. Your statement — “I wish more people felt a responsibility towards the land and all it contains, rather than thinking the land and its resources owes them something”, struck a strong chord. Thanks for your voice here.

    On Ella — congratulations! You’re so brave! We’re going to send a link to your post to a friend of ours who is re-considering her own relationship with spiders, and is thinking that exposure might be the way to go. We’re sure that your story will inspire her!

  7. We bought our farm 20 years ago, and for many of those years we have been clearing, cleaning, planting and re-establishing natural habitats on our 86 acres. Where the quail were once silent, we now hear the males calling out loud and proud “bobwhite…bobwhite”. Where Turkey never trod, we now see tracks. We frequently see deer, and my husband even almost got ran over by a young fawn (yea, I know, that sounds funny. Talk about turning the tables) as they each rounded a shed heading in opposite directions. That was funny! Squirrels are plentiful, as are rabbits. We left one pond alone that is no more than a wetland, and the frogs thank us by singing loudly each evening. Our farm is fast becoming my own little sanctuary. I love to explore it each evening during the warmer weather (unfortunately I do not tolerate extreme cold and tend to hibernate in the winter, I would have made a great bear in a former life). The insect diversity is amazing and I am never short of unusual subjects to photograph.

    I am excited about an upcoming project that I am going to be able to help with. My husbands family own a farm in Fillmore, MO. It is 127 acres in the Nodaway River bluffs. This land is home to numerous timber rattlers. A professor at a local university is interested in doing a study on their population. I will get to assist him. I can hardly wait! It should make for some interesting posts.

    I hope your friend is encouraged to try and overcome her trepidations where spiders are concerned. If I can anyone can. I look forward to hearing about her progress. There is truth to the saying “In order to overcome your fears you must face them”. I know from experience that is sometimes easier said than done, so I wish your friend confidence, and courage to overcome her fears.

  8. Hi MObugs!

    What a success story! It’s amazing how vibrant a well-balanced ecosystem feels — and how wonderful to observe all the interactions between species and environment.

    We’re so excited about your timber rattler adventures-to-come! Last year we were able to go searching for timber rattlers on some private property on the Mississippi bluffs — we searched all day, and were lucky enough (and excited!) to hear a single rattle in a pile of stones. We didn’t see any or get any photos, so we’re hoping to go back this year.

    Thanks for the vote of confidence regarding our friend, as well. It is so liberating to befriend a species that we once feared.

  9. My 2 cents. I watched a nature show on Yellow Stone or the likes and they said when the wolf population was at its lowest the ENTIRE ecosystem was largely affected. Not in a good way.

  10. Hi David,

    This book spoke extensively about Yellowstone, and the changes seen during ‘wolf times’ and ‘no-wolf times’. You’re right — it wasn’t just that the wolves affected elk populations — the effects permeated the entire ecosystem. National Geographic did a similar article in their March 2010 issue. It’s fascinating to see the interconnectedness of natural systems, and certainly calls into question management policies that look at only two or three variables. Wisconsin is doing a study right now on wolf population and how it affects deer population, but we were saddened to see that the study seemed to end there, not taking into account the effect that the deer have on forests, fields, and streams, and so on down the line. Hopefully policies will continue on an upswing, taking into account entire ecosystems, instead of only looking at how how a single resource will affect our markets or our desires.

  11. I was falling asleep last night and started thinking about the wild animal question. I started imaging what it would be like to have top level predators still around. Then worrying every time you let out your dog or cat or even children for that matter, what a trip it would be to see a bear or mountain lion in your back yard. People in Africa still get eating by lions and crocs. Imagine going to the river to get some water and a croc comes flying out of the water and grabs your friend or child and starts the death roll? I watched a nature show (I know not another nature show) about wolverines. I never saw anything like this and was blown away watching it. No wonder these things have been removed from the US, for the most part. They are absolutely fearless. They showed this one walk up to a wolf pack (6 or 7) with a fresh elk kill and within a few minutes the wolves were bested and running away. Then they showed the same scenario, but with a grizzly bear. They said if they smelled food in a house, they could literally claw through the wall to get it. You just wouldn’t want these things in your neighborhood. Amazing creatures to be sure, but wilder than anything I ever saw, scared of nothing.

    Now go back a few hundred or thousand years to before we removed most of these threats to man. The wild was basically kicking our ass at every turn. Mankind has been trying to beat back nature since we evolved from Lucy. Sleeping in trees etc was probably not too comfortable. So as we became more advanced and were able to kill off our competitors and conquer the land, we have not realized, for the most part have passed the point of balance. I am absolutely all for reintroducing every animal back in the ecosystem, well except the wolverine maybe, in protected areas. There should be vast tracks of protected lands that could support this balance. Alas, humans are like rabbits. We multiply until all the food is gone and we will starve to death. With no predators above us, we are out of balance.

    I finally feel asleep.

  12. Wow, that’s some bedtime thinking!

    It’s also interesting to note that the predators we have now are pretty ‘wimpy’ (even the wolverine) compared to what our ancestors lived with. This book traces the disappearance of the ‘megafauna’, and observes that when humans arrived on the scene, whether it was Australia or North America or South America, the megafauna soon disappeared. From the predators’ point of view, the scenario you created above might have seemed quite the opposite. Whether it was a sabre-toothed cat, a giant bear that was as fast as a horse, a dire wolf or an American cheetah — as soon as the humans came to North America, all of these fabulous predators soon disappeared, leaving only the smaller (perhaps more elusive?) varieties. Sometimes it seems that even back in the Pleistocene, the predators had more to fear from us than we did from them! =)

    Still, it would be a very different world if we had big predators around. A few years ago Rebecca and I were sitting by our stream in the wee hours of morning when along came this trumbling black bear. It was HUGE — the biggest we had ever seen. That year the woods were definitely more exciting, knowing that we shared the forest with such a massive beast. It instilled a certain fear, but also a certain excitement. In truth, we knew we were in much more danger every time we drove our car, but it was still thrilling to know that the bear was out there. Two years later someone poached a huge bear — about 700 pounds, and it was all over the news. We’re sure it was the one we had seen, as it happened only about a mile north of us. After that, the forests seemed strangely lonely.

    Thanks for all of your great thoughts — this is a tremendously fascinating subject, and hopefully we’ll get to talk about it in person at some point!

  13. This idea i quite interesting. Since in many areas, the regular predators would have been hunted or driven off for the safety of human residents, this plan, if it proves to work, could replicate the previously existing system. There are many problems with overpopulation with deer and such.

  14. Hello Roger,

    We’re very curious about what effects it might have. We’ve been doing a bit of searching around to see if we can find someone local who has been monitoring native wildflower and bird populations for a number of years — if a place could be found that already has existing records, we could do an experiment for a few years and see if the plants and birds experience an upswing.

  15. In the short-term it might help, but I have concerns about the long-term impact of lots of humans who “hunt” (chase) but don’t kill. In areas without a strong apex predator presence - the most likely areas for humans to engage in the sport - the prey species might become accustomed to being chased. They will become aware over a few generations that being chased does not result in harm. Just like city squirrels who aren’t afraid of humans, the wild animals won’t be afraid of being chased.

    One thing we have found over and over with ecology is that unnatural solutions rarely work; they usually have unforeseen negative consequences. For example introducing an invasive predator to predate an invasive pest - the predator itself becomes a nuisance in short order. I fear that intruducing non-hunting “predator” games, if done on a wide enough scale to have any ecological impact, will end up having a negative impact long-term.

    That’s not to say that individuals can’t go out and chase deer or rabbits. It’s fun and it’s unlikely to be widespread or concentrated enough to have an impact. But if it did become a widepsread sport it may not work as well as actual hunting and predation.

  16. Hi Drew,

    GREAT points. Nothing is going to replace true apex predator presence, and your ideas about the long-term affects of this on a wide-spread basis are intriguing. Another friend was suggesting adding stalking them into the mix — using stealth to try to get very, very close. We wonder if actually touching the animals would give enough of an impression of a ‘near kill’, but that would probably be just as likely to fail in the long run. Funny (or perhaps not funny at all), isn’t it, how we humans are always trying to ‘fix’ nature — something that has worked fine, through massive growth and extinction, for millions and millions of years.

    Thanks so much for this awesome and well thought-out commentary, Drew.

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