Tag Archives: national parks

Wildlife Management Dilemmas

The science of wildlife management has moved from the good old days of worrying only about deer and ducks to the broader issues of conservation management of all species. But it operates in an impossible squeeze between human activities and wildlife responses. One key problem is the incremental creep of land use decisions. If we log half of the forest surely there is plenty left there for the wildlife to thrive, or so many people believe. So a central dilemma is habitat loss. The simple approach using ‘cow arithmetic’ says that if you have a farm one-third the size of what you have now, you will be able to have only one-third the number of cows. So habitat loss is critical but there seems to be no way of stopping it as long as the human population continues to expand.

To solve this problem we set up parks and reserves. That will please most of the botanists because if you have a plant species you are concerned about, you need set aside only a few hectares of land to keep it safe. This approach is at the core of wildlife management’s dilemma. You keep the plant species but lose the ecosystem. Certainly you can keep many of the small insects in a few hectares, so you protect not only the plant species but more of the biota. But you will lose all the birds and the larger species that need much larger areas of habitat. One of the defining moments in wildlife management and conservation ecology occurred when several ecologists recognized that even large national parks were not large enough for the charismatic megafauna.

Maybe we can rescue it all with metapopulations, islands of good habitat close enough to each other to permit dispersal. That will work in some cases and is a useful addition to the management arsenal of tools. But then we have to cope with additional problems – introduced pests and diseases that we may or may not be able to control, and global problems of air and water pollution that respect no neat geographic boundaries.

We cannot control species interactions so if we tinker with one aspect of the ecosystem, we find unintended consequences in another aspect of the ecosystem that we did not expect. We brought rabbits to Australia and to many islands with dire consequences no one seemed to anticipate. We also brought rats and pigs to island inadvertently with many well documented problems for bird and plants. We take predators away from ecosystems and then complain to the government that there are too may deer or Canada geese.

So part of the dilemma of wildlife management in the 21st century is that we do XYZ and then only later ask ecologists whether it was a good idea or not to do XYZ. Decisions are made by governments, companies, farmers, or city dwellers to change some element of the ecosystem without anyone asking a wildlife manager or an ecologist what the consequences might be. We love cats so we pass laws that prohibit managers from culling wild cats and only allow them to sterilize and release them. We love horses so we do the same. So wildlife management decisions are driven not by ecological studies and recommendations but by public demands and weak politicians. Wildlife management is thus a social science, with all the dilemmas generated when one part of society wishes to harvest seals and one part demands protection for seals.

Wildlife management has always been handicapped by the hunters and fishers who know everything about what management should be practiced. There is no need to have any professional training to decide management goals, management actions, and funding preferences for many of these people. I suppose we should at least be grateful that the same approach is not applied in medical science.

Wildlife management has always been a low priority activity, underfunded and moved more by political whims than by science. This is not at all the fault of all the excellent wildlife and fishery scientists who try their best to protect and manage our ecosystems. It is a victim of the constraints of making decisions on the spot about long term issues without the time or money to investigate the science necessary for knowledge of the consequences of our actions. The world changes slowly and if our memory is on the time span of 1-3 years, we are not on ecosystem time.

Much action must be spent on trying to restore ecosystems damaged by human activities. Restoration ecology recognizes that it is really partial restoration ecology because we cannot get back to the starting point. None of this is terribly new to ecologists or wildlife managers but it is good to keep it in mind as we get lost in the details of our daily chores.

Humans are destroying the earth in their quest for wealth, and simultaneously producing the problems of poverty and obesity. Led by politicians who do not lead and who do not seem to know what the problems of the Earth are, we keep a positive view of the scientific progress we generate, enjoy the existing beauty of biodiversity, and hope that the future will somehow cope with the changes we have set in motion.

“Humans, including ecologists, have a peculiar fascination with attempting to correct one ecological mistake with another, rather than removing the source of the problem”.   (Schindler 1997, p. 4)


Estes, J.A. et al. 2011. Trophic downgrading of Planet Earth. Science 333:301-306.

Likens, G.E. 2010. The role of science in decision making: does evidence-based science drive environmental policy? Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 8:e1-e9.

Newmark, W.D. 1985. Legal and biotic boundaries of Western North American National Parks: A problem of congruence. Biological Conservation 33:197-208.

Pauly, D. 1995. Anecdotes and the shifting baseline syndrome of fisheries. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 10:430.

Schindler, D. W. 1997. Liming to restore acidified lakes and streams: a typical approach to restoring damaged ecosystems? Restoration Ecology 5:1-6.


The New Conservation?

In a recent book “Love Your Monsters: Postenvironmentalism and the Anthropocene” edited by Mihael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus (Breakthrough Institute, 2011) Peter Kareiva, Robert Lalasz, and Michel Le Marvier present a vision for conservation in a paper: “Conservation in the Anthropocene: Beyond solitude and fragility” that bears some analysis. It is available on the Breakthrough Institute website. It is a rather misleading vision, like many visions, partly correct, partly wildly inaccurate, and partly tilting at dragons that do not exist.

In general any subject that ranges out from science into policy starts to walk on thin ice when opinions masquerade as scientific information. A few quotes can give you the flavor of this article. “By its own measures, conservation is failing. Biodiversity on Earth continues its rapid decline”. A strong statement but how has anyone decided that conservation is failing? If the evidence is that biodiversity in some groups and some places is being lost, then any ecologist can agree. If conservation is failing, then we might expect some guidance of how to prevent this failure.

The next quote grabs the issue directly: “Conservation cannot promise a return to pristine, prehuman landscapes. Humankind has already profoundly transformed the planet and will continue to do so.” I know quite a few conservation biologists and I can not think of one who would disagree with this statement. There could be some who are promising a return to pristine landscapes, but they must be rare, as are those that still think the earth is flat. So here is Straw Man # 1. (This is not sexist by the way, no female conservation biologist would make such a silly Straw Person.) So let us proceed by agreeing that we cannot go back to pristine nature, and humans are indeed having a large effect on the Earth.

Now we are getting into the center of the proposal with this quote: “But conservation will be controversial as long as it remains so narrowly focused on the creation of parks and protected areas, and insists, often unfairly, that local people cannot be trusted to care for their land.” Alas this is hardly what most conservation biology focuses on. So we might call this Straw Man # 2. The goal of most conservation is to protect biodiversity in all its forms, in parks, in nature reserves, in agricultural fields, in forest woodlots, and in cities. I cannot comment on situations in which local people are adversely affected by conservation activities. In the few cases I know the local people are happy to cooperate in conservation programs, but I can imagine there are conflicts I am not acquainted with. So can we agree that conservation is NOT narrowly focused on parks? Parks and reserves are part of the conservation picture but far from all of it.

The reason conservation biologists have adopted this narrow agenda is captured in the next quotation: “But ecologists and conservationists have grossly overstated the fragility of nature, frequently arguing that once an ecosystem is altered, it is gone forever. Some ecologists suggest that if a single species is lost, a whole ecosystem will be in danger of collapse, and that if too much biodiversity is lost, spaceship Earth will start to come apart.” Now I have to start looking under the carpet to find such an ecologist. Really this is quite silly, and an insult to current ecological knowledge. As a reductio ad absurdum this is a prize quotation and we can call it Straw Man # 3. I have no doubt that we could find someone on earth who would say this, but that is hardly evidence that ecologists agree on such nonsense. That it is nonsense of course is no argument that one can keep removing species from ecosystems with no consequences whatsoever.

We now come back to a more modest quote: “The trouble for conservation is that the data simply do not support the idea of a fragile nature at risk of collapse. Ecologists now know that the disappearance of one species does not necessarily lead to the extinction of any others, much less all others in the same ecosystem. In many circumstances, the demise of formerly abundant species can be inconsequential to ecosystem function.” Since no ecologist supports the thesis of the previous paragraph, we can certainly agree with this quotation, so perhaps we are back on track.

The next quote however puts us back into the perceived picture: “Nature is so resilient that it can recover rapidly from even the most powerful human disturbances…. Even that classic symbol of fragility — the polar bear, seemingly stranded on a melting ice block — may have a good chance of surviving global warming if the changing environment continues to increase the populations and northern ranges of harbor seals and harp seals.” Alas we are back to serious nonsense again. The literature on restoration ecology is one long litany of rejections of the idea of resilient recovery from human disturbance. It simply does not occur except perhaps on a time scale that is geological. And polar bear biologists do not think they will go extinct at least in the next 100 years that we can project. So here is STRAW MAN # 4 (or perhaps straw bear?).

We are now led to the final conclusion: “If there is no wilderness, if nature is resilient rather than fragile, and if people are actually part of nature and not the original sinners who caused our banishment from Eden, what should be the new vision for conservation? Instead of pursuing the protection of biodiversity for biodiversity’s sake, a new conservation should seek to enhance those natural systems that benefit the widest number of people, especially the poor. Instead of trying to restore remote iconic landscapes to pre-European conditions, conservation will measure its achievement in large part by its relevance to people, including city dwellers… Conservation is slowly turning toward these directions but far too slowly and with insufficient commitment to make them the conservation work of the 21st century. The problem lies in our reluctance, and the reluctance of many of conservation’s wealthy supporters, to shed the old paradigms.”

If the first two premises in this last quotation are highly questionable, and the third is and has been agreed by all conservation biologists for many years, how do we get to the conclusions given the questionable premises? While it sounds exciting to shed the old paradigms, we have to be careful rather to take the valid points from all our approaches, and try to correct the failings of conservation science. As in much of ecological science, the truism that “the devil is in the details” applies with much force to conservation issues, and there is no one path to glory.