My Turn: Wilderness Act represents many lessons learned

Last modified: Thursday, May 29, 2014
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, a conservation bill that created the National Wilderness Preservation System, which protects more than 100 million acres of American wild land.

New Hampshire, though a small state (9,279 square miles), has six protected wilderness areas: the 29,000-acre Presidential Range/Dry River Wilderness, the 5,552-acre Great Gulf Wilderness, the 45,000-acre Pemigewasset Wilderness, the 35,800-acre Sandwich Range Wilderness, the 14,000-acre Caribou-Speckled Mountain Wilderness, and the 23,700-acre Wild River Wilderness.

Within these areas, animals and plants thrive, untainted. No roads, vehicles, permanent structures are allowed in any of the protected areas. Invasive activities such as logging or mining are not permitted. People can camp, hike and fish, but only according to strict regulations.

A visitor to these areas might find pine martens or peregrine falcons or the endangered plant called three birds orchid, species you won’t generally find in places overrun with humans, species that used to be bountiful 400 years ago, when wolves also roamed freely throughout this state.

These protected areas reflect a once upon a time.

Up until the 1600s, when settlers came to this country, nature managed itself just fine. In New Hampshire, wolves and mountain lions (or Eastern cougars) were the top predators and kept other wildlife populations in check, particularly deer and moose. They only preyed on what they needed to survive, usually killing the vulnerable individuals. This method is known as “culling,” and it helps keep the entire ecosystem in balance.

Dense forests once flourished across the landscape, harboring New England cottontails and great horned owls. Craggy mountains provided lush habitat for black bear and bald eagles. Bodies of water were clean and clear, chock full of aquatic life like American brook lamprey and spotted turtles that sustained golden eagles, osprey and raccoons. Scavengers such as turkey vultures, foxes and crows ate what the predators didn’t.

These links in the ecosystem are crucial. Top predators keep populations of grazing animals at healthy and manageable levels. This means that vegetation is not at risk for overbrowsing. Plentiful shrubbery and trees provide shelter and food for smaller animals and birds. One missing link can cause nature’s system to collapse.

The face of wilderness changed when Europeans came to settle the land. They ravaged North America’s wild lands to the point where multiple species became endangered or extinct.

Immediately, they saw large predators like wolves and mountain lions as a threat. Incorrectly assuming that these predators were dangerous to humans, they killed them on sight. Settlers leveled forests and cleared out low vegetation, taking over the habitat that wolves and mountain lions required for survival.

People recklessly hunted white-tailed deer for food, decimating the deer population, yet another blow to wolves and mountain lions. When the predators turned to livestock because deer were scarce, people killed them for that, too.

Today, there are no known breeding populations of wolves or mountain lions in New Hampshire. The gray wolf is on the endangered list, and there hasn’t been a confirmed mountain lion sighting in more than 140 years. The Eastern cougar (a subspecies of cougar) once lived in every eastern state in a variety of habitats. It is now considered extinct, and the endangered Florida panther is the only breeding population of cougar east of the Mississippi. The decimation of these predators is a travesty due to habitat loss, limited prey and persecution.

Protecting the wolf and mountain lion in New Hampshire has been a long, heated and complicated battle. With 80 percent of the state forested, New Hampshire’s habitat is ideal for wolves and mountain lions, though not at the same historical levels. Wolf packs need a tremendous amount of space for hunting, usually about 50 to 100 square miles.

Mountain lions, on the other hand, are loners but roam long distances to hunt. Their ranges can vary from 10 square miles to 370 square miles.

While the Wilderness Act doesn’t specifically protect these two top predators, it does protect habitat in which they could live if given the chance. As habitat loss is one of the major reasons large predators have disappeared from New Hampshire, the thousands of acres that can’t be abused by people are a gift to wolves, mountain lions and threatened species in particular and to wildlife in general. The protected wilderness areas combined with plentiful food sources and regulated hunting could indeed result in both predators making a comeback.

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, consider how much we are protecting: more than 750 wilderness areas; 109,511,966 million acres; wilderness areas in all but six U.S. states; and rare species that can’t survive in areas populated by humans. Such statistics can’t fix the damage of the past four centuries, but they are indicators of lessons learned.

The Wilderness Act gives Americans the chance to bring back some of what we chased away with the promise of treating it better this time around.

(Kate Johnston is a freelance writer who lives in Dover.)