Skip to comments.A radical notion about 'the wild'
Posted on 07/24/2008 3:10:46 PM PDT by girlangler
It is time, says a U of T biologist, that we began 'to think of humans as part of the natural world'
July 13, 2008 Murray Whyte Staff Reporter
Consider the Jefferson salamander. About average-finger length, its grey skin mottled with black. Amphibious, spawning in Southern Ontario's quickly vanishing woodland vernal pools. Prognosis: Dying.
Now, the urban raccoon. Plump and furry, not so adept at fishing as its rural cousins, perhaps, but expert at garbage-tipping. An adaptable squatter in buildings both abandoned and, as homeowners near High Park well know, occupied. Prognosis: Thriving.
The tiny Jefferson, its numbers dwindling to endangered status as swaths of suburbanization razed its habitat, has become, in recent years, something of a cause célèbre.
For conservationists, it's a potent metaphor for our disconnect with the natural world, the vast land transformation that human activity has wrought and our ineffectual attempts to counterbalance it. The raccoon, on the other hand, not so much. To sum up the popular opinion, our ring-tailed co-urbanite is simply a pest.
Mart Gross offers a different take. "Racoons wouldn't be in the city if they didn't fill a valuable niche," says Gross, a senior professor of conservation biology at the University of Toronto. "They're an important part of the ecosystem, and deserve the same protection as any wild species."
And the embattled Jefferson? "Basically, it's triage for the living dead," says Gross, on U of T's downtown campus. "Wildlife management has gone down the tubes because everyone's obsessed with endangered species. (The Jefferson salamander) is no longer adapted to its environment. It survives because we breed it in labs. Then, what we try to re-introduce to the wild is a different beast anyway, because it's adapted to its surroundings in the lab.
"The issue isn't a biological one, it's an aesthetic one. And we think it's so important that we give it rights. To me, that's the new conservation biology: Recognizing truly what it is that is the human goal, with biodiversity, and recognizing this concept of organisms having intrinsic rights is no more than a philosophical concept that bears little weight."
In the largely Catholic world of conservation biology, the idea that a native, endangered species like the Jefferson could be trumped by a trash-grubbing raccoon is a godless notion, to be sure. But the movement is growing. To be clear: Gross is not advocating a slash-and-burn mentality in the planet's remaining wildernesses. What he is suggesting, though, is equally offensive to some: To drop the battles we can't win and start thinking about the war. If that means accepting an altered landscape as a new arena where a different kind of biodiversity might flourish, so be it.
In his realm, Gross's ideas could be regarded as blasphemous: That endangered species without habitat, such as the Jefferson, are no longer relevant to the ecosystem; that non-native species that find a way to thrive in their new environment for example, the brown goby in Lake Ontario, a Mediterranean stowaway fish with an appetite for another invader, the zebra mussel are welcome additions; and, most importantly, that these retrofits, re-do's and manipulations of the biosphere are simply evolution in action.
"The first change in attitude one should have is to think of humans as part of the natural world," Gross says. "We aren't inflicted upon nature. We are part of nature. We're a selective force, like wolves on moose and deer."
MANY OF THESE ideas are radical, and Gross will have a serious test today, when he and a group of his students present their work at the annual meeting of the Society for Conservation Biology in Tennessee, the field's largest and most influential gathering. "Ninety per cent of them, if they heard what we were discussing, they'd want to stone us," Gross says.
David Aborn, the University of Tennessee biologist hosting the affair, expects some lively debate. "You need that radical who's not afraid to stick his neck out."
Some would trade "radical" for "offensive." Among those is Caroline Schultz, the executive director of Ontario Nature, one of the advocacy groups fighting to keep the Jefferson alive. "The argument that we've wrecked their habitat, so we should just let it go, is a very nihilistic viewpoint.
"Some ideas are very interesting in academic realms but have to be very carefully applied if at all in reality."
As recently as 2004, however, Gross was the very picture of the religious conservationist, working feverishly for the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. That year, he identified two distinct salmon populations in British Columbia that had dwindled to dangerously low numbers. In an emergency measure, he recommended to then-environment minister Stéphane Dion that they be given immediate protection under the Species at Risk Act.
Dion was legally obligated to comply, but he refused. Sockeye as a whole were not endangered, he argued, and protecting these two tiny populations would close down the entire multi-million dollar fishery.
"It was historic, a real groundbreaker," recalls Gross. "It was the first time in history a government had allowed a species to go extinct. And I was stunned. I just couldn't believe they'd let it go down the toilet like that."
Gross worked for more than a year to rally support. "To us, this was anathema `You've got to save all these little twigs of the tree, because that's biodiversity,'" he says. "But then, I started to realize the issue is larger than any one species. What we want is ecosystem health."
The holy notion of the unspoiled wilderness is too narrow to begin to describe Gross's hypothesis on what, exactly, "wild" means.
"Don't bother with the conservation textbooks!" implores a line from a presentation Gross gave in May to the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution. "Take the religion out of conservation biology. Recognize humans as natural."
Gross's ideas are starting to gain traction. "If you were to look at the roster of scientists for the major conservation (organizations), you would not find anyone who studied evolutionary processes," wrote Peter Kareiva, the chief scientist and director of research for The Nature Conservancy, one of the U.S.'s largest conservation non-profits.
Kareiva did a survey of conservation organization's websites the World Wildlife Fund, the Wildlife Conservation Society, his own hunting for the word "evolution." He found no occurrences.
"It's striking how comfortable we are talking about `historical conditions' and what was `natural in the past,'" Kareiva wrote, "yet fail to realize the extent to which change is so relentless, and that `historical conditions' must by definition always be historical (and not some goal for which to strive)."
Kareiva was ruminating on a presentation that Gross had given The Nature Conservancy, and found himself moved by his ideas. "Language matters," he continued. The absence of evolution revealed "a view of the world in which the inevitability of change has been overlooked. Species go extinct, new species arise, and species adapt. An evolutionary biologist asks what types of traits and organisms are selected in different environments, and how humans are changing the attributes of biodiversity. We have an opportunity to shape the future of biodiversity that we may miss if we obsess too much over `preservation' of the past."
Schultz believes there's a better balance to be struck. "Some say we should be striving to restore the landscape to a pre-European state even if it's impossible," she says. "That might be going too far. But surely there's a moral imperative to keep a species alive, even if it's not pragmatic. The ultimate goal is to get the species back to the point where it can thrive."
But Gross's point is neither moral nor pragmatic, he says. It's simply the path that hews closest to a contemporary and accurate notion of "natural."
That being the case, attempts to rebuild endangered populations rarely end well, he says, despite the sometimes-massive efforts to do so.
Take the Chinook salmon. A system of hydroelectric dams along the Columbia River (its native habitat) has pushed it to the brink. "We closed their niche," he says. "But we have endangered-species laws that say we can't let them go extinct. So we've got truckloads of salmon being driven around the dams to release them so they can spawn. It's hopeless, and it's totally artificial."
Meanwhile, in Chile, the Chinook are thriving. How? We put them there. They'd never make it themselves warm equatorial waters would kill them but in the cool waters of the southern Pacific, the Chinook, introduced as farmed fish, are roaming free by the thousands. By next year, they're expected to round Tierra del Fuego and head up the Argentine coast.
Some biologists would chafe at the "unnatural" horror such a situation presents. But a growing movement is looking to accept the invaders, usually placed by human hand, as natural selection unto itself, one of Gross's ideas.
"For a long time, (non-native species) were regarded as vermin," says the University of Tennessee's Aborn. "But now that they're entrenched, it's up to us to adjust our thinking."
WHAT DOES THIS have to do with the Jefferson salamander, or the raccoon in your garbage can? Well, everything. In a nutshell, the planet is doing what it has always done: Changing. That we've played such a significant role in that is secondary to the fact that, as always, the planet will be more hospitable to some species than others. As Darwin would have said, let the strong or best suited survive.
"I would say habitat is not being lost so much as it's being lost to them," Gross says. "But it's also being reconverted for other species as part of our evolving ecosystem."
Gross would see that as an opportunity. The Catholic in his field would see it as an abomination. But as Kareiva wrote, the ability to "shape the future of biodiversity" could well be missed if conservation biology chooses, as it does in large part now, to look backward, not forth.
Interesting points made in this article. I just finished an article about a popular trout stream in Tennessee (popular because of the non native trout tailwater fishery).
The resource manager recently made decisions that many anglers feared could destroy the fishery, in an effort to accomodate some endangered mussels and darters.
So, I found this article really interesting.
It’s good to be home, and back on FR.
the planet is doing what it has always done: Changing. That we've played such a significant role in that is secondary to the fact that, as always, the planet will be more hospitable to some species than others.
Very true, but it's near blasphemy now to say it. A while back, the great Kenn Kaufmann wrote a piece for some birding magazine (I subscribe to them all so I can't remember which) saying the same things about certain bird species. Yes, the cerulean warbler may be in trouble, but other species such as the northern rough-winged swallow are thriving under habitat changes.
And so goes the world.
I KNEW I missed pinging someone on this.
Glad you are here, though, and value your opinion on this topic.
I was looking out my window earlier today and saw a beautiful pilliated (sp) woodpecker (huge bird) on a tree. I have a lot of them here, one really large one. I also have some interesting (and probably endangered) salamanders. Not long ago I was hiking in the woods and turned over a log and saw a beautiful salamander. It had a big round head and white spots on it.
Reading this article made me chuckle, as I have read some pretty interesting articles about the Ivory Billed WP sightings and efforts to determine if they are actually in Arkansas. Now that’s one story to watch.
Wow. Some real common sense coming from a university on the subject of wildlife! Excellent.
As a birder, I would have loved to have seen an ivory-bill. Looks like it ain't gonna happen.
But pileated... that's a good bird too! Enjoy!
Good article and welcome back.
Kinda surprising that someone recognizes that we are part of nature and has the guts to write about. :)
The eco-nutbars will never go along with that though. If they accepted it they couldn’t use every moving thing as a means to stop all development, drilling, mining, etc.
Besides, those salamanders are so cute. :-)
I’ve read that far from the howling wilderness we were taught about their discovery most of the North and South American continents were largly a man made landscape, forms of slash and burn agriculture and deliberate fires set to drive animals having been practised for centuries.
Yes, now I remember. I read alot of articles about natural resources for my job, and read an excellent one recently about the (not really there) Ivory Billed stopping some water project there. And the government grants are pouring in for a few people to profit/benefit from the “discovery” of this extinct species.
I need to share some info I have on this with you. And yes, it was near the White River in Arkansas.
I am tired, so can’t think right now (drove hundreds of miles the past few weeks). I’ll see if I can find it and freepmail it to you. I arrived home late last night, took one look at my garden and flowers, and freaked.
So I spent the past few hours staking my tomato plants, pulling weeds out of my garden, etc. This is my relaxation, my therapy (grin). I didn’t come in from outside till just now, have been removed from my world for the past week, the world where the sound of wildlife in the woods is my opera, a place I treasure right now (grin).
Do you read “Audoban (sp) magazine, and Ted Williams articles?
He’s a prolific writer,published widely, but we have head butted once. Long story.
I find the clasifications of subspecies as “different” to be ridiculous. OK, there are fish with 5 spots and fish with 8 spots.... but they aren’t different species!!!
Sorry for the delayed response. After I posted, I was gone for three days to my little desert retreat -- where I have no TV and no Internet. Yeah, nice!
Anyway, no, I do NOT read Audubon magazine. That's the only birding magazine I refuse to read. It's far too left wing for my taste. So I don't know who Ted Williams is. Is he someone I should read, or does he incline too far to the left too?
Nothing wrong with that. While I was traveling the past week I was at locations where my hosts didn’t watch TV or the news. I went into withdrawals for a while, since I am a news junkie, but after awhile didn’t miss it.
Although, I did miss out on most of Obama’s Magical Mystery Tour. I have caught up some on FR, but still too tired to read much, and trying to whip my garden, flowers, etc. back into shape after being gone.
Ted Williams (not to be confused with the baseball player) is a leftie, a great writer, but tends to print only the info pertinent to his agenda. Another OD writer I know says he has a “Messiah complex (LOL).” I have, like I said, butted heads with him in the past.
Anyway, just thought you read these publications, since you are interested in birding. I get all kinds of email alerts from these.
Had a friend tell me last night my name is listed on a petition I never signed onto. I read an email alert from the HSUS, and apparently they are padding these petitions with names of those who read the email alerts.
I wouldn’t support anything they promote, so I am going “Hmmm.” Might make a good article, how reading emailed alerts can land one’s name on a petition.
But, hey, it's all good. Gab with ya later!
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