Playing God in suburbia

  • Greg Hanscom

  For the past six years, I’ve been a volunteer medic on our local ambulance service. In each ambulance, we keep a stack of 4-by-8-inch cards. I’ve treated victims of everything from stomach flu to mine cave-ins, and I’ve never had occasion to use those tags. I hope I never do.

Here’s how they work: Faced with a bus crash or an earthquake — an accident that creates more victims than you can tend to at once — your job is to quickly survey the patients. Then, you assign each one a color-coded card, which has perforated color strips across the bottom. A patient with a green card is injured, but not seriously. A yellow card indicates serious but not life-threatening injuries, while a red card means the patient has life-threatening injuries in need of immediate attention. Finally, a black card indicates that a patient is dead — or about to be.

This triage system, pioneered during the Korean War, is designed to give the greatest number of people their best shot at survival. In a situation where resources are limited, it’s a harsh but necessary solution. But it puts the medic in a horrible position: You have to decide who is likely to live or die.

According to some people, we’re in just such a situation with the West’s wildlife. Rob Roy Ramey, the Colorado scientist who plays one of the starring roles in this issue’s cover story, says that in a world where conservation resources are limited, "We have to do triage." We have to choose which habitat to protect and which wildlife to restore — and we have to decide which ones to let die.

To some extent, we’ve been doing this for a long time. Conservation groups have to pick their battles wisely, or risk losing them all. Land trusts have to be strategic about where conservation easements will do the most good. State and federal wildlife agencies make tough decisions every day about where they’ll spend their limited time and money. But are conditions now so dire that we need to abandon certain species (or subspecies, such as the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse, the subject of this story) entirely because our attention is needed elsewhere? I’d like to think not.

Of all of the public-land management agencies that have been pinched for money in recent years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has perhaps been squeezed the hardest. Last year, the agency received just $69 million for endangered species recovery. Compare that to the $4.8 billion Congress appropriated for national highways, or the $1.3 billion it spent on early reading programs, or the $880 million allotted for nuclear waste disposal. We’re a wealthy society. Surely we can dig a little more change out of the couch for wildlife.

It also seems to me that we’re smart enough to accommodate a few more people in the West and still preserve wildlife habitat. We don’t have to wreck Colorado’s economy to protect a few thousand acres for the Preble’s mouse.

Then again, maybe we’ve decided, as a people, that we’re only willing to stretch so far for other creatures. If so, we’re playing God with the West. The outcome, even if we succeed in saving a few chosen species, is sure to be heart-breaking.

cadamo
cadamo
Aug 09, 2006 11:05 AM

I whole heartedly agree that it is sad that we cannot better fund and prevent species from becoming endangered. However, the problem is not merely money (and money will always be scarce and hence some need for traige) that does or does not go to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. First, the law needs improved so that species, when listed, are not a liability to private landowners. We need to reward those who can rehabilitate habitat for improved populations. That does not take place under the current law. Second, while you compare other governmnet expenditures to ESA spending, you ingnore that the federal government does in fact spend a lot of money on wildlife. Three sources come to mind (I am sure there are additonal accounts as well), the conservation title of the farm bill (approx $500 million/year), the Land Water and Conservation Fund (although much goes to urban parks and infrastructure), and the Wildilfe Restoration and Conservation Fund of the Pittman Roberts Act (inconjunction with the new state wildlife grants that allowed each state to form a comprhensive conservation plan for all wildilfe to receive future funding). Species conservation will come from more than one source. To make these sources (and scarce resources) work though we must find better policies to get the best return on our dollars and erase the animal versus human dynamics. Overall, all these viable solutions that are out there do not rely solely on money and we cannot continue to point the finger at the federal government. We all must support progressive change in policies and how we work together for conservation. Thank you, A loyal reader