Still here

Can humans help other species defy extinction?

 

Once upon a time in the West, ranchers hung freshly killed coyotes on the fences that bordered their property. Coming upon such a calculated display of violence could be unsettling, especially if neither your livelihood nor that of anyone you knew hinged on the number of lambs or calves you shepherded to maturity each year.

For those whose livelihoods were so hinged, however, a coyote carcass tangled in barbed wire or nailed to a weather-beaten post was an emphatic moral statement: "Any animal that dare harm my herd is my eternal enemy." That, at any rate, is how I interpreted those roadside spectacles of rotting hide and viscera.

What the coyotes made of the practice is unclear. Any alarm they may have felt upon encountering a cousin in extremis seems to have done little to curb their willingness to risk a similar fate trying to satisfy an appetite for domestic flesh. Despite the carcasses - and a hundred years of poisoning and trapping and systematic aerial hunting - coyotes have continued to prey on livestock.

Even now, in most parts of Montana, Wyoming and neighboring states, anyone old enough to own a gun is free, and often encouraged, to shoot coyotes on sight. Yet throughout the region, in the hills that stretch beyond the towns and along the farther reaches of the sprawling ranches, coyote yelps and howls can still be heard, especially after dark. The sounds are commonplace at that hour, of a piece with the Milky Way and the lingering odor of sage, a central element in the wild nocturne of the West. And in those doglike yet eerie wails we might discern a high-pitched counterpoint to the mute carcasses once exhibited on fence posts, one that says, in effect, we are still here, our kind will not be easily undone.

Other kinds have been undone, of course, or nearly so, and none quite so nearly as the black-footed ferret. By the middle of the century, sightings of this member of the weasel family had become exceedingly rare, leading most people to conclude that the animal had been eliminated across its entire historic range - west of the Mississippi River from southern Canada to northern Mexico. Then, in 1978, a small group of black-footed ferrets was discovered outside Ekalaka, Mont., in the southeastern corner of the state. Three years later, another, larger population was found near Meeteetse, Wyo., east of Yellowstone Park.

Canine distemper soon swept through the Ekalaka colony, killing all of its members. The animals at Meeteetse would have perished as well had 17 of them not been rescued in 1986 and enlisted in a captive breeding project, following two devastating epidemics of the same disease.

From that point onward, the fate of the species rested with those few survivors, and even more with wildlife managers. In one sense, the emergency intervention has provided cause for hope: By October of 1995, when the last of the original group died, several hundred black-footed ferrets had been born and reared in captivity. Efforts to transfer adult animals back into the wild had been less than encouraging, however, and that is the only sense in which the breeding project ultimately could be judged.

The problem? Among other things, those pesky coyotes. Of the 40 ferrets released in 1995 in the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, located along the Missouri River in eastern Montana, at least half were killed by coyotes, most within a few days of being freed. Reintroductions in Wyoming and South Dakota met with similar results or worse.

So beginning in the fall of 1995, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the lead agency among several participating in the recovery effort, authorized a more aggressive approach at the refuge. The plan called for the release of three groups of about 15 ferrets each at two-week intervals. Around the release sites, wildlife managers erected 45-inch-high electrified fences, like those ranchers use to shield sheep from predators.

As an added precaution, agents of Animal Damage Control, the Department of Agriculture's livestock protection program, flew over the sites in helicopters prior to the releases and gunned down coyotes they observed on the ground.

"We've pushed the ferret so close to the brink," explained Fish and Wildlife field supervisor Kemper McMaster at the time, "that we're the animal's only hope for survival."

This could be a tale of three predators - one flourishing in the face of sustained peril, another a generation or two shy of extinction, while the third, by far the most dangerous of the lot, having once tried to exterminate the first, is now trying to save the second.

Picture the scene: In a wildlife sanctuary, wildlife biologists killed one kind of wildlife so that another might live. They weeded their animal garden. Gone are the innocent days of laissez-faire management. Were that approach followed in this case, were nature left to its own devices, the black-footed ferret certainly would vanish from the earth.

In fairness, it must be said that the animal's prospects would be far brighter had the days of laissez-faire management not been preceded by decades of disruptive interference, and that suggests a second way the tale might be cast - as a lesson in conservation biology. The fortunes of the black-footed ferret have always been linked to those of the prairie dog, which not only serves as its chief prey but provides it with shelter, specifically, the tunnels and galleries of abandoned dog towns. With the arrival of European settlers this longstanding dependency turned tragic.

Convinced that prairie dogs compete with livestock for forage, landowners offered them the same consideration they extended to coyotes, but with grimmer consequences. As the prairie dog declined, the ferret all but disappeared. Today there remain only about a dozen dog-town complexes large enough to support predation by ferrets (HCN, 8/16/99: Standing up for the underdog).

But rather than feast on yet another irony in wildlife management or describe the action on one more front in the restoration wars, I want to consider what might be called "natural representation," that is, individuals and groups taking up particular causes.

Broadly speaking, such partisanship dates back at least 10,000 years, to the origin of agriculture, when Homo sapiens first domesticated plants and animals. But protecting wheat fields and cattle herds from their many natural enemies has never been anything but a means to a human end. Indeed, all relationships with domestic organisms are relationships of utility, though the degree and kind of usage vary widely among cultures, giving rise to considerable moral ambiguity, especially regarding pets, work animals, and animals conscripted for entertainment purposes.

But whether one sees in Lassie a singularly loyal companion or several mouth-watering meals, the fact remains that dogs exist in their present state only because our wily ancestors subdued and bred their wild ancestors on the basis of traits humans find agreeable.

Natural representatives enjoy a different relationship with their species of choice, or so they say. They claim to speak on behalf of this or that organism, usually an animal but not always, acting as personal guardian and public sponsor in the face of threats large and small but almost always contrived by other human beings.

Unlike the rancher, who includes his own predatory interests in any calculus of care regarding another creature, natural representatives try to remove themselves from such equations, assuming the creature's interests as their own. According to this view, the world is growing crowded with imperiled organisms in urgent need of protection, a need the Endangered Species Act of 1973 was supposed to meet but does not. Hence the emergence of advocacy groups that profess to represent particular elements of the natural world.

When restricted to a single organism, natural representation is a fairly straightforward proposition. In the case of the black-footed ferret, for example, advocacy consists of campaigning for the establishment of natural conditions under which some optimal number of ferrets can live long enough to multiply and thus sustain themselves.

But the situation becomes complicated when the welfare of other organisms is taken into account.

As you might imagine, not everyone supported the federal Fish and Wildlife Service decision to shoot coyotes on the Charles M. Russell refuge. The regional branches of the National Wildlife Federation and Defenders of Wildlife went along, reluctantly and cautiously, though without taking formal public stances. The Predator Project, a carnivore advocacy group headquartered in Bozeman, Mont., vigorously opposed the strategy.

Granted, Predator Project director Tom Skeele's main concern was not the shooting per se. It was the disease and ecological disruption new coyotes might introduce when replacing those shot near the dog towns. Yet the effect was the same - groups committed to saving the black-footed ferret disagreed over how that salvation might best be achieved. Even the Fish and Wildlife Service was of two minds about the more aggressive strategy.

"On principle, we're opposed to predator control," says Lou Hanebury, a wildlife biologist who has been involved in the federal ferret recovery program from the beginning. "Only under very rare conditions will we even consider it."

Such clashes and contradictions are becoming routine. Pick any major wildlife conservation issue - the reintroduction of wolves and grizzly bears in Montana; restoring salmon runs in the Pacific Northwest; what to do, if anything, about mushrooming populations of deer in Connecticut or mountain lion in California*and you will find conservationists at cross-purposes.

Among those who say they speak for the animals are many whose voices fail to rhyme. And their discord, added to the longstanding discord between the conservation community and its usual foes, further reduces the likelihood that natural resource disputes will be allowed to resolve themselves.

Increasingly the fate of wild creatures is being determined by lawmakers, lawyers, and judges, with legislation and arbitration supplementing and, in some instances, superseding natural selection as mechanisms of evolution. In practical terms, this means that the survival of endangered species now depends less on their environmental fitness than it does on the kind and quality of representation they receive in the cultural domain.

An organism without a sponsor is an organism without a future.

How much easier natural representation would be if plants and animals could speak for themselves. But not only does nature lack such a voice, it also shows no sign of possessing the values, beliefs, and ambitions that we might think appropriate if it could express itself. It shows no sign of wanting representation, either, or even grasping the concept.

Campaigning on behalf of the natural world may seem like a natural thing to do, but there is nothing in the natural world itself that resembles such behavior, such awareness and concern.

Cooperation exists, yes, and community, but both are born of instinct and opportunism. So while human beings are increasingly responsible for the endangerment of other species, they are the only species that considers endangerment wrong or reversible. Given a chance, coyotes would chase black-footed ferrets into extinction. Ferrets would do as much to prairie dogs, without a second thought, without any thought at all.

By all indications, predators do not ponder the consequences of their actions, and they certainly do not take up the cause of their prey. They eat them.

One could counter that my focus here is too narrow, that the genius of nature lies in the webs of life we call ecosystems. From this vantage, the reason the coyote is now in a position to eliminate the ferret is that the damage done to prairie dog ecosystems is so severe that it has unraveled the complex relationships that kept competing populations in check throughout the West, at least during the relatively brief period about which we have information. No doubt this is true.

Nor is there any doubt that the most promising conservation efforts today are those that address the vitality and longevity of ecosystems, expanding natural representation beyond the level of any single imperiled organism to include interdependent groups of organisms, only some of which are imperiled, along with the physical elements of their historic habitats - clean water, for example - on which they rely for survival.

But if expanding our perspective to include ecosystems yields important insights into the workings of life, it stands to reason that by taking a longer view - the entire story of evolution - we might gain an even deeper understanding of the natural world, and thereby become better equipped to represent its interests. Were it only that simple.

Most would agree, I think, that if the individual organism can be said to have interests, they are self-preservation and reproduction. Healthy wild things in wild surroundings live to live and live to breed. And in recent years it has become widely recognized that the interests of ecosystems - I am using the word interest even more loosely here - might best be understood in terms of qualities like dynamism, biodiversity, and self-sustainability. But what is the interest of life as a whole? What would I be standing for, defending and promoting, if I took a stand for life?

Rather than get mired in age-old debates about direction and contingency in evolution, I would like to try to answer this question by exploring the implications of a simple indisputable fact.

One of the defining features of life on Earth is that all but a very small fraction of the species that ever lived no longer exist. If the fossil record reveals anything, it is that extinction is as common among groups of organisms as death is among individuals.

Life perpetuates itself by first giving impetus to the living, then consuming them, one by one, kind by kind, continually destroying what it has created, under a momentum that calls to mind fire - merciless, devouring fire. Imagine: Since the first spark appeared four billion years ago, life has raged through almost 30 billion species, each including countless individuals. The flame that passed from organism to organism cared not a whit about the particular attributes of the organisms it ignited or that in its passage they were reduced to ash. Life exists to burn, to set the planet ablaze. Whether in consequence coyotes or black-footed ferrets or human beings are extinguished is irrelevant. The fire simply moves on.

Whatever reason we might offer for opposing the extinction of this or that creature, then, it cannot be because it violates the natural order. Nature is speechless; it is without viewpoint, neither condoning nor condemning our treatment of it.

No, such judgments are uniquely human, arising from a uniquely human trait, that marvelous and monstrous extravagance we call consciousness. Marvelous, because it awakens us to the radiant actuality of life. Monstrous, because at the very moment of awakening we realize as well that life is indifferent to such awareness. And extravagant, because consciousness may not be necessary to evolution, to the bonfire of the living.

The most that can be safely said is that it is an experiment, a very recent one, and one that easily could go the way of most evolutionary experiments, that is to say, go away for good. Looming behind every half-deliberate injury we do to the natural world as well as every thoughtful attempt to repair the damage is the same sobering question: Is consciousness adaptive?


One of the tolls we pay for the arrogance of consciousness, for turning about and gazing at the fire, is a sense that we stand apart, that we are no longer of this planet in the way other organisms are. As the environments into which we are born take on a stronger cultural cast, the alienation grows more acute. The received world appears increasingly foreign, otherworldly, the work of other hands, minds, ambitions.

The best response to this dilemma, I believe, is the reckless grace of adoption, the equivalent of extending one's sense of tribe and family to include someone else's children, caring for a world not of one's own making and by doing so making it familiar again. To adopt in this sense is to say, in effect, I take you as you are, promising to nurture you in all that you might be, for your sake, which is my delight.

This is precisely what natural representatives are trying to do - awkwardly, to be sure; in piecemeal fashion; often in the mistaken belief that the predatory element in human affairs is the source of all evil. And in the attempt to expand the moral domain to include other species, more is at stake than the fate of our fellow creatures. That expansion may be the only means we have to counteract the excesses of human cleverness and power.

Like it or not, our presence is now felt everywhere - not just in the cities and rural regions but in wilderness areas, as well. In the absence of a worldwide renunciation of industrialization and a catastrophic reduction in population, the trend will continue. Natural representation does not shy away from this sobering fact. Nor does it entertain notions of dominion. It represents a humble, self-correcting approach to the dilemma of human influence. It offers hope that the inevitable can be converted into a virtue.

By placing compassion - is there really a better word? - at the center of human consciousness, we may find a way to live lightly on the planet without betraying the very traits that set us apart, traits that, paradoxically, spring from the same tree as the rest of the natural world. As alien as we may sometimes feel, the planet is our home, too - for now, at least.

Since adoption of the sort I have in mind is unprogrammatical and provisional, trying to derive strict guidelines would be a fruitless exercise. As in any unfettered conversation about the state of the world, complete agreement among those who try to speak for nature is no more likely an outcome than the imminent resolution of natural history. Indeed, we should expect precisely the reverse - rival points of view, competing loyalties, even angry confrontation.

The debates that lie ahead will severely test the resilience and wisdom of every institution that plays a part in mediating social and cultural differences. And even under the best of circumstances, concern, when translated into action, will sometimes go astray. Opportunities will be squandered. Consequence will refuse to obey intention, no matter how noble the latter may be.

Still, with a helping hand and a little luck, certain once-imperiled creatures will endure. It now appears that the black-footed ferret will be one of them. Not only that, the ferret will do so without the systematic elimination of coyotes. Since the Montana program began in 1995, government scientists have found that in some instances neither fences nor predator control made any appreciable difference in the number of animals that survived after being released in the wild. In other instances, a fence was sufficient most of the time, with only an occasional coyote requiring removal.

So-called preconditioning - exposing ferrets to prairie dogs and prairie dog tunnels while still in captivity - has also contributed substantially to their survival. In recent years, the population at the Russell Wildlife Refuge has been averaging roughly 40 animals, with the majority having been born in the wild, a hopeful sign. Similar efforts are under way or planned for other areas in the state. Does this mean that ferret recovery on the Russell Wildlife Refuge is a success? Wildlife biologist Hanebury has seen too much of the vagaries of nature to rush to judgment.

"We're cautiously optimistic," he says. "It's too soon to say anything more."

Perhaps the most promising development in human thought during the past several hundred years is the gradual recognition that all human beings are in the same boat, a boat of uncertain origin and destination, adrift in a cosmic sea that is as adamantine as it is vast. Natural representation extends that sense of fellow-feeling to the non-human world. All living things suffer the same fate. Defying that fate, whether on our own behalf or that of others, may be quixotic. Viewed from the standpoint of evolution, it surely is futile, at least for individuals. But how brightly we burn when we do so. And what is life if not light? What more noble role could we play than that of light keepers?

Every creature carries the original spark, the center and source of all that lies beyond the reach of culture. Each of us is capable of a yelp that would rattle the stars, challenging the impenetrable, often hostile silence of the universe by saying, in effect, I am still here.

Edwin Dobb lives and writes in Butte, Montana.

Copyright 2000 HCN and Edwin Dobb