Permanent life support is no substitute for a native land

by John Krist

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 habitat.

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 delusional.

John Krist is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn,.org). He writes for the Ventura County Star in California.

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