One rides the summer thermals; the other glides through rivers and streams like a pale torpedo. They could not be more dissimilar, this big buzzard and the silvery fish, yet they have a great deal in common: Both are icons of the environmental movement, and both challenge us to deepen our understanding of the relationship between living creatures and the landscapes they inhabit.
California condors and Pacific
salmon both reached milestones in the past month. For the condors,
still the rarest birds in North America despite a 20-year campaign
to boost their numbers, the milestone was superficially a happy
one: Three chicks hatched in the backcountry of Ventura County,
Calif., the product of breeding by birds in the wild.
Until 2002, condors had not reproduced outside zoos and other
captive-breeding facilities since the early 1980s. Protected in
1967 under a predecessor of the Endangered Species Act, condors
dwindled to a population of just 22 birds in 1982, prompting
biologists to begin collecting chicksand eggs in a desperate
attempt to prevent extinction. By 1984, only 15 birds remained in
the wild, and when seven of them died in quick succession, the
survivors were placed in zoos.
Since 1992, the
Ventura-based condor-recovery program has been releasing zoo-bred
birds into the wild, and two years ago, those birds produced their
first chicks. None survived. Last year, one chick was produced in
Southern California but died four months later. Another, born in
Arizona, still lives.
The three chicks being tended in
the Southern California wilderness this month represent the biggest
crop of wild hatchlings in more than two decades and are a hopeful
sign that the long, expensive recovery program is significantly
closer to achieving its objective: a wild, self-sustaining
population. That hope is undercut, however, by continuing threats
to condor survival.
The mortality rate among adult and
juvenile condors in the wild is so high that without continuing
attention from human handlers and a steady supply of zoo-produced
birds, the species would quickly slip back toward the brink. Among
those threats are accelerating development of condor habitat,
exposure to urban dangers such as trash and power lines, and the
use of lead shot and bullets by hunters — poisoning by
lead-tainted carcasses remains a top killer of condors.
Unless those factors change — unless the landscape can be
made safe for condors — the species may never be more than an
artificially propagated and tended curiosity, a zoo animal posing
as something wild and free. A world in which condors fly outside
cages is richer than one in which they do not, but it is dishonest
to pretend that a creature permanently on life support is back from
the brink of extinction.
For salmon, the recent milestone
was not even superficially positive, but it touches on the same
issues of human intervention in natural processes, habitat
integrity and exactly what Americans mean when they say they wish
to save a species.
Recently, the Bush administration
— responding to recent court rulings — declared that it
would count hatchery-produced fish when deciding whether a salmon
population had dwindled enough to warrant protection under the
Endangered Species Act.
Hatchery salmon are to wild
salmon as feedlot steers are to free-roaming bison. Although
superficially similar, they are genetically and behaviorally
distinct; research has shown that farmed fish are less fit than
their wild cousins for life in rivers and sea, less likely to
survive to adulthood and less likely to breed. They persist —
and in many watersheds have displaced wild fish — because
hatcheries in California, Oregon and Washington dump them into
rivers by the hundreds of millions each year to offset mortality
caused by dams, pollution, logging and other insults to salmon
To argue that salmon spawned in buckets and
reared in concrete pens are the same as wild fish that spawn in the
mountains after a thousand-mile migration from saltwater is to
commit a crime against language and biology.
It is no
different than suggesting that because people can see them in zoos,
there is no longer any reason to maintain grizzlies outside cages.
It is like arguing that because Ansel Adams took so many nice
photos of Yosemite Valley, there ?s no reason to refrain from
logging and paving it.
A species that has been divorced
from its native landscape and relies on permanent intervention from
human beings to survive has lost something essential to its
identity. It is convenient to pretend otherwise, particularly if
you destroy wildlife habitat for a living. It is also profoundly