Since bringing Em home back in July running has taken a dive. Those growth plates of hers have us doing a lot more hiking than running, and the running we do do is often slow and easy, or interrupted by frequent breaks. In the long run it’s for the best, but right now I’m wanting more time on the trails. Yet, Em still needs several hours of exercise everyday, and the time on the leash is good for us both. The result for the last week has been a short 2-3 mile hike/run for her, then a longer solo run for me, then more play time for her, then some work for me, and more play/training time for her.

Back to the point of this post. The extra time on the trails, both with Em and without, has me running into a fair amount of other people, dogs and wildlife. A few days ago, I started writing the bit below about predators. I’m not sure what I’ll do with it, but for right now, I thought I’d put it here.

The sound of a woman’s scream breaks through the morning. It’s barely light out, cold enough to see breath, to wish for mittens, yet she yowls as if her feet were touching hell’s fire.

The shriek careens through the park, follows the creek bed, gains the south ridge. On the loop trail stopped dead in my tracks the hair on my neck and on the dog’s shoots up as if we’ve run full speed into an electric fence and rather than jumping back are holding on to the top wire. The scream comes once more, then nothing.

My hearing turns up to eleven heralding the sounds of the creek and the wind in the trees out of the morning. Tightening my grip on the leash and taking a breath I turn around. It wasn’t a woman.

There aren’t many major land predators left in the Pacific Northwest. The ones still holding on can be counted on one hand. Black bears, mountain lions like the one I heard in the park, maybe an angry moose or one rogue Grizzly up in Idaho’s northern interior have survived years of hunting, habitat degradation and human expansion, but barely.  They’ve done it by moving higher into the mountains, avoiding people, scavenging around the edges of what’s been left behind by logging operations and housing developments.

This situation hasn’t just been rough on the carnivores.

The presence of large predators instills fear in prey causing a change in behavior, says Robert Beschta, an emeritus professor at Oregon State University who studies trophic cascades. These behavioral changes are realized in the prey animal’s balance for food and safety and can result in changes to how they move across the landscape.

Without predators, says Beschta, ungulates like elk and deer are more likely to remain in a region with preferential forage. The result is heavy grazing, and the degradation of soil and water quality. Add in the trickle down effect, and everything from butterflies to bull trout feels the loss of predators.

The take home message: From mountain lions to wolves, predators make for a more balanced ecology.