Martha

The long-expected news that wolverines will not be listed under the Endangered Species Act finally appeared in the official record last week. I said I wasn’t going to analyze this situation any further than I already did in a previous post a couple of weeks ago. Digging further into the science isn’t going to do any good, since this situation involves political currents that are far outside my realm and that have nothing to do with research. But here is a general press roundup, with attention to a few statements made by key players.

The original AP article, picked up by outlets nationwide, and expanded upon in various publications (including Science) outlines the decision to withdraw the proposal for listing, and quotes a number of people involved in the decision. First, issues of factual accuracy: of note here are statements made by Dan Ashe, the director of USFWS, particularly the assertion that recent confirmed records of wolverines in places like Utah, Colorado, and California suggest that wolverines might be “adapting” to climate change. Let me put this in the most temperate fashion I can muster right now: this idea is absurd. We believe that wolverines were extirpated from their former range – including Utah, Colorado, and California – due primarily to poison bait campaigns against wolves and other predators in the early 20th century. They are currently reoccupying former range, not expanding into new and different habitat. This reoccupation of former range offers zero indication of adaptation, although it is certainly testimony to the enduring toughness and resilience of the creature in question. Wolverines suddenly denning in the lowlands of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho might suggest evidence of adaptation to higher temperatures and less snow. So far, however, we have no such examples. The fact that the director of the USFWS conflates re-inhabiting former range with adaptation to climate change is distressing because it suggests a casual – dare I say negligent? – attitude towards the realities of evolutionary biology, within the very agency that is supposed to be addressing these realities in the interest of protecting the nation’s wildlife. I know that I just wrote a long post about how science is malleable in the face of people’s underlying values, but I am still taken aback by this casual glossing of ‘adaptation.’

Very quickly after the official announcement of the decision not to list, the environmental advocacy community declared their intention to sue the USFWS. Statements appeared from, among others, Rocky Mountain Wild, the Union of Concerned Scientists, Climate Science Watch, and the Kootenai Environmental Alliance. In the past, I’ve been skeptical about the value of litigation. It’s not a tactic of which I approve, since it usually escalates identity politics and creates a committed cadre of conservation opponents. I’ve done my best, within the limited scope of my powers, to encourage people to pursue alternative options to deal with wolverine conservation needs. In this instance, however, I am going to stay out of it. I’m not saying that I’m now in favor of litigation as a general tactic. I’m just saying that in some cases, one finds oneself more interested in sitting back with a good book and glass of wine and remaining judiciously quiet.

Nevertheless, I hope that the environmental activist community continues to maintain a high standard of accuracy in their statements about this situation, and doesn’t stoop to pushing the same old identity-based narratives that certain other parties (beyond the environmental community) in this debate have already resorted to. I’m not going to point to specific individuals here, but I did hear a radio interview in which some generally inaccurate statements were made by an environmental advocate – wolverines are threatened by logging, wolverines are threatened by snowmobiles, the wolverine population was originally knocked back to Canada by trapping, etc. None of this is true, and while I think the idea of building a broad base of support for wolverine conservation may be moot by now, it still doesn’t serve the wolverine’s interests to cultivate more enemies by picking at snowmobilers, trappers, and the logging industry. Climate change threatens snowmobilers and wolverines alike. Most likely, it will also change forest ecology and take a toll on the timber industry. And as for trappers, they can’t trap wolverines if there aren’t any around, so if they’re serious about preserving trapping culture, they have every reason to be interested in real conservation. This is bigger than wolverines – it always has been, because it’s always been about the survival of human communities that depend on mountains, as well as natural communities. So I hope that the environmental advocacy community will remain attentive to the story they chose to tell about why this animal is important, and I hope that that story will still leave room for everyone who wants to be part of it.

The round of lawsuits was entirely predictable, and it’s probably going to cost more in time and resources to settle this issue in court than it would have to provide resources for wolverine conservation through listing in the first place. This is the biggest tragedy, and the thing that I’m still having trouble getting my head around, especially since part of the argument against listing had to do with limited resources. Of course, listing would have set a precedent and provoked a conversation that USFWS is perhaps eager to avoid – more on that in a later post. For now, however, the situation remains strikingly illogical.

The proposed Colorado reintroduction may or may not be another casualty of the decision not to list. Right now it’s unclear what is happening. It still could go forward, especially since a state-led effort might be more palatable to people who are suspicious of federal government.

I’ve started this post a number of times, and have remained unable to find anything eloquent to say about a situation that evokes no elegant language, only simple disgust. I’m posting this today, in its raw and unbeautiful form, because September 1st, 2014, marks a sad centennial that has a certain resonance for the topic at hand. A century ago today, the passenger pigeon went extinct. In a New Yorker post, Elizabeth Kolbert gives us these facts:

The passenger pigeon was once the most numerous bird in North America, perhaps in the world; it’s estimated that when the first European settlers arrived, at least one of every four birds on the continent was a passenger pigeon. The early colonists were awed by the vastness of the flocks, which contained hundreds of millions—perhaps billions—of birds. 

Jonathan Rosen, in a longer New Yorker article, worth the read, further elucidates:

In 1813, John James Audubon saw a flock—if that is what you call an agglomeration of birds moving at sixty miles an hour and obliterating the noonday sun—that was merely the advance guard of a multitude that took three days to pass. Alexander Wilson, the other great bird observer of the time, reckoned that a flock he saw contained 2,230,272,000 individuals….

But the profusion was misleading. [In 1900], a boy in Ohio shot a passenger pigeon out of a tree with a twelve-gauge shotgun, killing what was quickly identified as the last wild member of the species…A small captive population remained at the Cincinnati Zoo, including a pair patriotically named George and Martha, but there would be no new feathered nation. By 1910, Martha was the sole survivor, an extraordinary fate for a bird whose ancestors had, in Audubon’s words, sounded—from a distance!—like “a hard gale at sea, passing through the rigging of a close-reefed vessel.”

Martha spent four years as a melancholy zoo attraction. Visitors tossed sand to get her to move. Officials offered a thousand-dollar reward for a mate, but on September 1, 1914, the last passenger pigeon in the world died.

When Europeans arrived here, passenger pigeons existed in flocks that numbered in the billions, flocks that took three days to fly by and that denuded entire stretches of forest when they roosted and ate. The passenger pigeon was a victim of human greed in combination with technological innovation – specifically, transportation technology. The advent of refrigerated train cars made it possible to ship dead pigeons from rural areas to urban markets, and they were quickly hunted down to low densities by people eager to exploit this market. As both authors point out, however, the pigeon was also brought down by some mystery of biology, some aspect of its life history that we still don’t understand. Kolbert again:

By the eighteen-nineties, the only passenger pigeon sightings were of small, ragged flocks. And this is what makes the bird’s extinction difficult to entirely explain. Once the passenger pigeon was no longer abundant, it also was no longer worth hunting, or at least no more worth hunting than any other medium-sized bird. So why didn’t it persist at low densities?

There are several other factors that could have contributed to the pigeon’s ultimate inability to recover. Whatever the final fatal factor was, though, we can be sure that no one in early 19th century America would have imagined that the passenger pigeon was at risk of extinction “in the foreseeable future.” We can be sure that every single person who witnessed those massive, sky-obliterating flocks imagined that the species would persist forever. How could it not? What was there to worry about? Nothing at all. And even if they had had an inkling that there was some ecological or biological need or condition with which humans were interfering, the parameters of those needs and conditions were uncertain, unclear, imprecise….and so caution was not warranted.

My ancestors were around during the demise of the passenger pigeon. They probably killed and ate some of the birds. They didn’t know the consequences of what they were doing, but I’m still mad at them for depriving me of the chance to see a flock of birds so vast that it could wipe out the sun. I’m mad at them for depriving all of us of our natural heritage. A hundred years is the foreseeable future – your grandchildren, if you’re of my generation, will probably still be alive. Two hundred years is also foreseeable, to anyone with even minimal vision. And when we can look two hundred years back in time and see what happened in the past, the future comes into even clearer – even if not absolutely precise – focus. USFWS is taking an official stance that wolverines are not threatened in a clearly definable way in the “forseeable future.” Tell that to Martha, and see if she agrees that lack of foresight and lack of ecological understanding are an excuse for inaction.

I give the final word to Jeff Copeland, who went on the record to sum up the entire situation in the AP article: “What’s happened today is nothing less than a travesty of science…This was not a scientific process. It was a political process.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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