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Know the West

Playing God in suburbia


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.