Habitat conditions for some species of wildlife have changed drastically in recent years. Large expanses of good escape cover have often been reduced to small Fox"islands" of suitable habitat.

Biologists refer to this phenomenon as habitat fragmentation. As habitats become more fragmented, mortality due to predation often increases. Predators are able to hunt small "islands" of habitat more efficiently than large areas of unbroken cover.

Before you leap to the conclusion that hawks and foxes are responsible for the lack of other wildlife on your property, you should carefully consider other possibilities. Predators make convenient scapegoats for frustratingly low game populations that are almost always the result of some other problem. Most likely, the absence or deterioration of suitable habitat, not predators, is the primary reason that game populations are below desired levels. Only when habitat conditions are marginal and escape cover is lacking, can predation be excessive.

Blanket condemnation of all predators that have ever been observed eating game animals is an antiquated viewpoint that lacks understanding of the predator-prey system. Only a few predators actually consume game animals in appreciable quantities. To say that "a hawk is a hawk" is akin to saying that a quail is a turkey. Before complaining that the "hawks and foxes are killing all the game" on your property, you should become familiar with the predator species in your area and learn more about their individual food habits.

Many predator species are incapable of capturing healthy game animals. For example, the much maligned red-tailed hawk is generally too clumsy and slow to kill a wild adult bobwhite. On occasion, a red-tail is lucky enough to encounter a weakened or witless quail, a rare exception rather than a regular occurrence. In fact, red-tailed hawks can actually benefit quail populations by controlling small mammals that are often nest predators.

The relationships between predators and prey are much more complex than most landowners realize. The same rodents that destroy nests can also be important "buffer species" (alternative food items) for larger predators such as foxes and owls. Blue jays that sometimes eat quail eggs can also benefit bobwhites by breaking up acorns into pieces small enough for quail to eat.

Nest-pilfering crows regularly mob and harass large birds of prey that eat game animals. If all these interrelationships sound complex, they should! Those who advocate the indiscriminate killing of predators are also revealing their ignorance of the delicate balance of Nature.

So what can the landowner do to minimize predator losses? With the exception of controlling numbers of feral house pets, there is little biological justification for reducing predator numbers (ironically, many of the most outspoken critics of wild predators are guilty of permitting their own household pets to run at large and kill wildlife). By far, the most effective method to reduce predation is to provide adequate escape cover. Even the most skillful hawk or cunning fox has great difficulty preying upon animals that have quick access to thick cover. Judicious furbearer management might also be considered to keep skunks, raccoons, and opossums in check (these species generally don't help control rodent populations).

A balanced trapping program is consistent with sound wildlife management principles. Balanced does not mean eradication. Often, the elimination of one predator species only increases the percentage of destruction by other less significant predators.

Before cursing predators on your next trip afield, consider their potential benefits. Remember that predators have coexisted with prey populations for millions of years and have yet to wipe out a single species. You might also keep in mind that prey animals naturally produce a surplus of young that were never intended to survive. Even in the complete absence of predators, Nature will find ways (i.e. weather, starvation, disease, and parasites) to trim populations back to levels consistent with available food and cover supplies. In fact, predators often benefit prey populations by removing sick and weak animals, thus limiting the spread of disease.

It's all a matter of balance. Perhaps Aldo Leopold stated it best when he wrote: "Harmony with the land is like harmony with a friend; you cannot cherish his right hand and chop off his left." Predators and prey are mutually dependent upon each other. Recognizing the importance of predators, even those who compete with us for "our" game animals, is a necessary step in truly appreciating the natural world in which we live.