The American West is an island besieged

by Paul Larmer

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."


The facility 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 1778.


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 life.


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 threatened.


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.


Can 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 captivity?


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 our time.


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.


In 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.


Fortunately, many 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 lands.


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.


What will 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.


Time is 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 their own.

Paul Larmer is editor of High Country News.

© High Country News