Out here in the wide-open West, it seems like there ought to be plenty of room for everyone, including all the wild creatures that were here first. But we know better: The conversion of wild lands into human habitat — not to mention space for our domesticated plants and animals — has pushed dozens of species to the edge of extinction and beyond.
The conservation movement’s response to this crisis has ranged from lawsuits against land-management agencies to buying up land before growth can gobble it first. Some groups such as the Peregrine Fund — the subject of this week’s cover story – have focused on the captive breeding of endangered species and their eventual release into the wild. The Fund has achieved some dramatic results: The return of the peregrine falcon is one of the most spectacular conservation success stories of the 20th century.
Yet, as Stephanie Paige Ogburn writes, there is peril in this approach. Successful captive-breeding programs can be an easy out for a society loath to confront difficult habitat problems. That’s the case with the California condor, where captive-bred birds released to the wild continue to die because society is unwilling to address a huge threat to their survival — the lead bullets in the carcasses they eat. And the Fund’s captive-bred aplomado falcons may face a similar predicament in New Mexico: They are being released back into grassland habitat still degraded from a century of overgrazing and now threatened by intensive energy development.
As Stephanie writes, "The birds could be released in perpetuity, re-seeded like an annual crop of flowers." But is this how we want to practice conservation in the West?
If Westerners allow ourselves to believe that we can overcome something as fundamental as a lack of habitat through technical prowess alone, we will never succeed in restoring healthy ecosystems. Why tear down dams in the Pacific Northwest to provide habitat for wild salmon when we can continue to breed and release gazillions of hatchery fish? Why force New Mexican farmers to be more efficient with water and return some of it to the Rio Grande, when we can just throw captive-raised silvery minnows into the river every year?
When Congress passed the Endangered Species Act, it did not envision tanks, zoos and other breeding facilities as the primary habitat for American wildlife. The writers of the law believed that the United States, unlike Europe, still had enough room for all its species to thrive in the natural world.
One can argue that they were overly optimistic; perhaps they didn’t foresee the day when more than 300 million people would live cheek by jowl with their increasingly stressed wild brethren. But I believe they knew what they were doing. By setting the bar high, they tried to force society to plan intelligently, to reconsider unnecessarily destructive practices, and on occasion to sacrifice human convenience for the sake of our wild heritage.
Biologist E.O. Wilson warns that "the sixth wave" of extinction is sweeping the planet. Captive-breeding programs are essential if we want to save what is left of our wildlife. They are not, however, nearly enough.