I saw the future of the American West. It stared at me with an unblinking black eye through a narrow metal window in the wall of an aviary on the island of Maui.
"That's the female," said our guide, Mary
Schwartz. "She's the social one."
manager for the Maui Bird Conservation Center opened the door so we
could take a full look at the sleek black bird inside. It was an
'alala, or Hawaiian crow, one of only 34 left on the planet. The
bird hopped onto a dead branch a foot from my head, cocked her head
and fixed me with an obsidian gaze.
Why was this
seemingly vigorous, intelligent bird one of the last of its kind?
Why was it not flying free in its native habitat, the mountain
forests of Hawaii?
The answers were all too
familiar: Denuded forest lands, rifle-carrying landowners and
aggressive exotic species ranging from egg-eating rats to
disease-carrying mosquitoes have almost eliminated the once
numerous crows. Hawaii had no mosquitoes until Europeans
unwittingly introduced them in the early 19th century; rats
probably arrived with Captain Cook in
Captive-breeding programs have produced a
small, but steady stream of Ôalalas, but attempts to return
them to the wild have so far failed, Schwartz says. Inbreeding, too
much socialization with humans and a lack of adequate habitat may
forever consign the Ôalala to a captive
In other words, the vibrant bird before us
was a museum piece.
In that, the 'alala is hardly
alone. The islands of Hawaii are an epicenter of extinction. Of the
historically documented 71 species of native birds, 23 are already
extinct, with 30 of the remaining species listed by the U.S. Fish
and Wildlife Service as endangered or
Not just native wildlife is
endangered. One evening during our visit, my family attended a
luau, a tourist-trap event that nonetheless offers a small window
into the native Hawaiian culture. Two Hawaiian girls, aged 9,
performed a traditional dance. They moved with precision, their
arms and hands as graceful as swans. At the end they spoke a few
words in their native tongue. The girls, said the luau's emcee,
attend a Hawaiian-immersion school, where they speak only their
native language. The school is an attempt to hold on to a language
and culture that have been trampled by waves of invaders, starting
with Captain Cook and, undoubtedly, not ending with the
cosmopolitan crowd at the luau that night.
endemic cultures and species survive in our globalized world? Or
has the habitat that created them been so altered that they will
never be more than museum pieces, no matter how many kids go to
language-immersion school or how many birds we hatch in
These are important questions for the
American West to ponder as it endures its own waves of invasions.
Though the region is immense, it, too, is an island besieged.
Vestiges of its distinct species and cultures remain, but whether
they will persist - and in what form - is the great challenge of
Already, we can see the direction.
Several hundred grizzly bears live in the last wild corners, but
their movements are electronically monitored by government
scientists to keep them out of harm's way; native fish survive
better in university aquariums than in our overused rivers; many
Native American languages are spoken only by a handful of elders;
even the West's more recent ranching culture seems to become more
of a myth with each passing year, the victim of a depressed
commodity market and land-hungry baby boomers.
dark moments, I think that maybe it's time to let go of the rich,
colorful past and embrace the monochromatic future. The economic
and political forces pushing growth and cultural homogenization are
just too strong to resist.
thousands of people don't buy it. They have dedicated their lives
to retaining and restoring the native diversity of the West, no
matter the odds. They see that with our public lands, we still have
the space for thriving wild populations of many species, if we can
only restore them to ecological health. We still have native
peoples with living languages searching for ways to eloquently
blend the past with the present. We still have ranchers, some of
whom are finding ways to make money while protecting their
But without a true sense of urgency, the
West will become Hawaii. We will succeed in only preserving a
rather interesting museum, where we catch glimpses of a rich past
that could have been a living present.
it take? More effort than we can imagine, no doubt. But a few more
victories might give us more energy. We can take down a few dams in
the Pacific Northwest and experience the thrill of wild fish
surging up the rivers; we can reintroduce grizzly bears into the
Idaho wilderness; we can leave the remaining roadless areas
roadless and rip out roads that no longer serve a purpose; we can
stop the spread of noxious weeds in our own towns and counties; we
can support language-immersion schools and watch a whole new
generation reconnect with their culture.
short, but there is still a chance. Even for the 'alala. On the
volcanic slopes of the Big Island, conservationists are working
hard to protect the last tracts of native forest, even testing ways
to rid them of rats. If the biologists at the Maui Bird
Conservation Center can keep nurturing new generations of 'alalas,
just maybe we can restore a world in which they can make it on