Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Thursday, August 25, 2011


Forming good natural resource policies first requires looking to the future, and establishing what objectives we want to reach and what kind of outcomes we want to avoid. I like to divide the strategies we use to reach the goals we set into two categories: conservation and management. Conservation strategies seek to halt change to natural systems, while management manipulates those systems to try to reach an outcome. Where conservation is passive, management is active. Since these systems involve lots of chaos, conservation strategies are far safer: their outcomes are more predictable and less likely to backfire. As relative newcomers to planet Earth, our species has come to thrive in the ecological climate as it currently exists. It's fair to assume that any random change to that climate will be detrimental to us as a species. So the underlying principle of our policies should be one of conservation; i.e., mitigating change. This should be particularly easy for us, since we humans are the main agent of ecological change today.

Let's test these ideas against the two biggest management projects in recent U.S. History. In 1982, a meeting of the Raptor Research Foundation made the decision to trap the entire population of California Condors (Gymnogyps californianus) and attempt to breed them intensively, with the ultimate goal of reestablishing a greater number of them in the wild. This was a bold and unprecedented scheme, but times were desperate; the total population of the species was a mere 22 birds. Ten years after the condor plan, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the same agency that had launched a successful campaign in 1914 to eradicate Gray Wolves (Canis lupus) from the United States, decided to replace them. When the first Canadian wolves were released in Yellowstone's Lamar Valley in 1995, the wolf population along the border was already on the increase. Having once been eliminated from the southern Canadian Rockies, they retook the area on their own, then advanced on the U.S. By the time the reintroduction began, 70 of them already called Montana home, with a few in northern Idaho as well.

Both projects have been huge, expensive, and far more successful than anyone could have hoped. Today, the California Condor population totals 384 birds, including 181 in the wild, two of which were hatched in the wild, while the number of Wolves in the U.S. Northern Rockies has topped an impressive 1,651. Continued careful management of both species can be expected, to keep wolves from interfering too much with Human interests, and simply to keep the Condors from collapsing.So how well do these reintroductions square with our underlying principle of conservation—of minimizing change? California Condors are relicts from a successful group of large, carrion-eating birds that dwindled from their Pleistocene zenith to a single North American species that probably numbered no more than a couple of thousand by the time Christopher Columbus set sail. The species has basically outlived its niche. Good arguments could be made on conservationist grounds both for the policy of saving the species or for allowing its natural demise. It's much harder to justify the Wolf reintroduction as a conservation project under these definitions. Both examples underscore an unavoidable contradiction: that change is a basic characteristic of nature, and every time we work to keep ecosystems from changing, we impede to some degree their normal adaptation to change. It can be tempting for wildlife managers to look for a template in centuries past, as in the “Rewilding” proposals of Josh Donlan and others, but ecosystems can no more go back in time than can we. There are no clear rules to guide us in our policies, and there is no way that nature is “supposed” to look. Our California Condor and Gray Wolf projects were not designed as routes to nature as it should be, but to nature as we decided we want it.
upper: CALIFORNIA CONDOR (2007) acrylic 30" x 20"
lower: CALIFORNIA CONDOR (2004) oil 72" x 108"