North Carolina's Predators And People Share A Long, Contentious History

Aug 26, 2015

Black Tip sharks feed on the coast near Cape Lookout.
Credit Shark Attack News

When Virginia Dare, America’s original “anchor baby,” was born on Roanoke Island in the 1500s, top-level predators were everywhere in the area now known as North Carolina.

“North Carolina had cougars and wolves,” says Roland Kays, a zoologist and the head of the Biodiversity Research Lab at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.

“There’s no doubt there were packs of wolves running around North Carolina, hunting deer. And there were cougars out there hunting deer. And now, for all intents and purposes, we have neither any more.”

Humans, of course, drove those other apex predators out of the state. One reason was to eliminate competition for food. But there was a second reason.

“You know, the whole concept of being hunted by a wild animal who wants to kill and eat you is quite terrifying and registers deep within our soul,” says Kays.

Fast forward to this past summer, when sharks attacked a total of eight beach-goers at Oak Island, Ocracoke, Surf City, and other locations—the most recorded in one year since the Florida Museum of Natural History's International Shark Attack File began keeping records 80 years ago.

Sharks are one of the last apex predators alive in North Carolina. They inspire fear, fascination, and sometimes a complete misunderstanding of wildlife’s place on the planet.

That misunderstanding might best be captures in a comment from Fox and Friends host Brian Kilmeade. While watching a video of a professional surfer being attacked by a shark on live television, he said, “You would think they’d have a way of clearing the waters for a competition of this leave. But I guess they don’t.”

That, of course, seems like a pretty ridiculous statement, that somehow the ocean can be cleared of sharks.

But it’s perhaps understandable why someone might think it’s possible, given that humans have done exactly that on land: Remove apex predators completely from large sections of our continent.

And, as it turns out, over-fishing has led to fewer large sharks on our coast. That’s had a ripple effect on the food chain, including an increase in cownose rays and a depletion of what they eat, bay scallops. Once a thriving industry in the state, bay scallops are now depleted.

It’s a phenomenon scientists call “trophic cascade.”

“It sort of ripples down from the large predators to the large herbivores to the plant community, and that can go in all sorts of different directions,” says Kays.

That’s led to some efforts to return apex predators to lands they once roamed, such as the nearly 30-year old Red Wolf Recovery Program in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.

The program is currently on hold, pending further review. Many predict it will soon get phased out, due at least in part to the efforts of local landowners.

“A wolf does not stay on federal lands because there’s no food there,” said Roger Seale, a landowner, during a public-comment session last winter. “The wolf comes to our lands to attack our wild game.”

With an attitude that wild game somehow belongs to us, it’s no wonder apex predators are in such dire straits here.

Apex predators are finding more appreciation in other parts of the world. There are more wolves than ever in the lower 48 states, and they’re even flourishing in parts of Europe. In India, villages have adapted to living with tigers, and even accept that sometimes tigers will eat people.

“If we’re going to bring these large predators along with us into the future of the planet that is dominated by people, this is what’s going to have to happen more,” says Kays.

It’s unlikely the welcome mat is going to be laid out for sharks anytime soon, off our coast or anywhere else.

They are, after all, killing machines. And they’re almost as good at it as we are.