Climate Change

Cristina Eisenberg on Large Predators, Large Landscapes and Coexistence

Cristina Eisenberg. Photo: Trevor Angel

Conservation science has changed a lot in the past two decades. In a new regular series on Cool Green Science — Green Giants — we’re asking some conservation science leaders their thoughts on the most pressing issues in conservation.

Cristina Eisenberg has emerged as a leading voice for large predator conservation in North America. Her research has investigated on trophic cascades and the effects of predators on landscape health and biodiversity. Currently a post-doctoral fellow in Oregon State’s School of Forestry, she is a frequent speaker and writer on predator conservation. She is the author of two books, most recently The Carnivore Way: Coexisting with and Conserving North America’s Predators, published this year by Island Press. (Read my full review) . I recently talked with her about why carnivore conservation is one of our most pressing ecological issues.

Becoming an Ecologist

We had been living in Montana for a few years, and all at once wolves started recolonizing our land, moving down from the north, from Canada. Our property is just south of Glacier National Park. At that point, I was a naturalist but not a professional scientist.

We had a window that overlooked the meadow, and we watched deer and elk grazing in the meadow at dusk, and we thought that was so lovely. We didn’t realize what we were watching was basically, ecologically, a disaster.

Then, one day I was gardening with my kids in my yard and a deer just bolted out of the woods on one side of this meadow, that was about two acres in size.

Right behind it were two wolves, hunting it, and they came within 20 feet from where my daughters and I were weeding my perennial bed. My kids were young then.

We didn’t feel threatened by the wolves at all. Later, I learned they were an alpha pair. I reported it and I ended up tracking wolves for U.S. Fish and Wildlife, to document dispersing populations that were naturally recolonizing the area. This is not the Yellowstone wolf reintroduction. This is close to the Canadian border, where I lived.

We have a lot of misplaced fears about carnivores, and, really, coexistence is a lot easier than we think it is. We just need to be open to it.

Cristina Eisenberg

There were still lots of deer and elk, but they could no longer stand around complacently, mowing down trees and shrubs to ankle height.

We were really into birds, and our meadow became filled with this early seral forest community, and all these species of songbirds, like American Redstarts—that’s the red-listed species—came back because their habitat was back.

So I saw these profound changes, and it made me deeply curious, and my family really encouraged me to go to school. I had an opportunity to get a Ph.D., studying trophic cascades, these food web relationships.

That’s what inspired my work as an ecologist.

On the Importance of Science Communication

As a scientist, in order to give our society tools to have a more sustainable future, I believe that there are three things that matter.

One is a very solidly grounded, science-based approach, but that’s only a third of it. The second part of it is education, building community, engaging stakeholders in the science itself. And the third piece of it is communication.

All of the science shows that wolves are in this tangled bank and they’re but one of many forces that shape the natural world.

Cristina Eisenberg

In order to create change, you have to engage people, and you have to not just engage their minds. You have to engage their hearts, and that means telling our stories.

There is an earlier draft of my book that my editor looked at it and she said, “Cristina, you need to put more of your stories in there.” I didn’t want this book to be about me. I wanted it to be about all the people out there doing the work, and the animals themselves, and their ecology. But my editor said, “We need these stories in this book, because that is what really reaches people.”

In terms of carnivore conservation, we need to build community. We need to have that solid science, and we need to find a way to share our story.

Coexisting with Large Predators

Coexistence is a lot easier than people think.

It involves looking at a wild landscape that contains predators, looking at it as a community, and seeing humans are part of that community. In other words, it’s learning how to live gracefully with these animals.

They are a lot more generous to us than we are to them. The conflicts, with bears attacking people, let’s say, and even the amount of depredation by wolves on cattle, are minimal.

We have a lot of misplaced fears about carnivores, and, really, coexistence is a lot easier than we think it is. We just need to be open to it.

Finding Common Ground on the Predator Issue

I give a lot of talks. I give 20 to 40 talks a year, not to promote my book but just as a scientist, and there’s this split between people who are old-school, resource extraction focused, be it forestry or hunting. They’re managing wildlife, as Aldo Leopold put it, the way we grow cabbages.

And then there’s a conservation community, the very liberal conservation community, that believe we should never take a life in any way. In their view, hunting is not ethical, and they have a romanticized notion of what a carnivore is.

I come from a ranching background and I’m also a hunter. I believe that humans need to live on the land, and humans are part of all the landscape all around us in North America, so you can’t take humans out of the equation and you can’t take the need for human sustenance out of the picture or off the table, either.

Wilderness is one of our best defenses against climate change.

Cristina Eisenberg

So the only way to find solutions to any of our conservation problems, not just carnivores, is by seating  people at the table together from very diverse sets of values and social backgrounds, and listening to each other, and talking to each other with respect.

My family lost the family ranch, for financial reasons, so I am very well acquainted with how challenging ranching is. My family had been ranching since the 1700s, so this was profound. It was incredibly tragic for my dad. I understand ranching has created a lot of problems. I witnessed a lot of it, in terms of land stewardship. But you’re never going to get anywhere if you come to meetings summarily dismissing ranching and making statements that we need to get people off ranches on public lands to promote more wolves.

So we need to find a way to create common ground. That means working with ranching communities and hunting communities, and finding solutions that are realistic, in which people are heard and respected.

On Trophic Cascades

Humans want simple solutions, and whether universities, conservation organizations, our government, or the media, they like to package things into sound bites and stories that are neat and tidy.

Then you juxtapose that against the reality that nature is, as Darwin put it, a tangled bank, a deeply tangled bank, where nothing is simple.

As an ecologist, I’ve certainly found that to be the case. Yes, wolves changed the ecology on our land when they returned, but there are a lot of other factors, and it’s context-dependent, those relationships.

So there are a lot of situations where you return an apex predator like the wolf and they may not be ecologically effective.

Conservation organizations and the media made these strong statements that wolves are going to save the world. That really inspired scientists to take a much deeper look at these relationships, and when they did, they found a variety of things.

The early science, I believe, was very solid. and the more recent science that is being done with far more sophisticated methods that did not exist 20 years, is equally solid.

All of that science shows that wolves are in this tangled bank and they’re but one of many forces that shape the natural world.

It doesn’t make any sense to be reducing predators to their lowest possible level above extinction if we’re facing climate change and we know that these carnivores, with their presence, can greatly enrich biodiversity and the cycling of energy through an ecosystem.

That’s a pretty stupid thing to do.

We can argue about the science forever. In the meantime, it’s like fiddling while Rome burns.

I’m not against wolf hunting, I’m not against managing wolves. I think that wolves need to be managed.

Any carnivore needs to be managed, but to just blindly take their numbers to the lowest possible level above extinction, we are probably going to regret that a lot.

The Continued Importance of Wilderness in the Anthropocene

What’s happening with climate change is so enormous, and it is going to affect every human being on this planet. We’re looking at conservative scientific estimates of an extinction of 50 percent of the species we have right now by 2100.

What I have seen, as a scientist, is that ecosystems that contain large connected tracts of land are ecologically far more resilient and have higher biodiversity than systems that don’t. These are systems where natural processes, such as predation, fire and flooding can still occur.

Wilderness fits that description. They are lands that are big, that are relatively intact, that tend to contain lots of carnivores in them, that tend to have things like big wildfires.

Wilderness is one of our best defenses against climate change.

We can alter some of the trajectory of climate change but we can’t make it stop at this point.

We’ve gone past that point. But maintaining wilderness, and also maintaining lands that are being managed as wilderness by private landowners, will make our future a lot better than it would otherwise.

Conservation’s Great Hope

I’m old enough to remember when the Endangered Species Act was signed, and I was a child when the Wilderness Act was signed.

I remember what when there were hardly any bald eagles, and there tiny numbers of sandhill cranes in North America, and now they’re thriving.

That gives me great hope, to see how we are rewilding North America. The reason for that rewilding is all about people.

It’s happening because we’ve decided. We’ve decided with our minds and we’ve decided with our hearts that this is something we want to do.

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  1. I found this reading very enjoyable. Although I must comment on your exclusive wording “I understand ranching has created a lot of problems”. If you have a family background in ranching I certainly hope you recognize that ranching can also help solve problems. And if you feel compelled to mention it causes problems maybe you should be inclusive in the positive side as well.
    Many people assume ranchers are only focused on feeding people with their beef sales and making as much money as possible in the process. Sustainable ranching invloves the thought process that we are shepherds of the land. When it comes to conservation, ranchers are the strongest ACTIVE conservationists I have ever known. They put their beliefs into practice, thinking of best land management, livestock management AND wildlife management. They are not exclusive in their thinking, but rather very inclusive of the big picture. I do not mean to suggest every rancher does this, but many do!

  2. Thank you for this interview with Ms. Eisenberg. I agree with her; I am not a scientist, and most of my scientific knowledge comes from reading and working with biologists in NE Florida for the St. John’s River Water Management District (in the 1990s) Ecosystems are very complex and interwoven and one of our issues was restoring wetlands or trying to create them. We weren’t very good at it then, but the more we learned, the better we got albeit slowly. She is absolutely right that it takes education, community and stories to teach people the truth about nature. We are part of it–humans are mammals, after all. What conservation science has done in the past twenty years is amazing. Thank you for all you do. Keep up the excellent work.

  3. Wish you had developed your statement that watching the deer and elk was seeing an ecological disaster in the making.

    As well, it would be helpful to have some references listed for those who’d like to explore some the findings in greater depth.