How wildlife biologists are becoming hospice workers
This guest essay comes from Meera Subramanian, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and writes about culture and the environment for The New York Times, Salon, Audubon, and other publications.
A year ago, I was sitting in New York City’s Bryant Park interviewing a wildlife biologist about vultures, three species of which are well on their way to extinction in South Asia. Munir Virani, who oversees the South Asian Vulture Crisis project for the Peregrine Fund, dropped a phrase that sank like lead. “We are monitoring to extinction,” he said, his dark eyes instinctually looking up, scanning the stretch of sky among the trees for life, maybe even a peregrine falcon that nests on the nearby MetLife Building in midtown.
He is a biologist, the name of his field spawning from the Greek root word for life. And yet he and many others in his field have become the equivalent of hospice workers. They come to know and care for their ward, but they are working in defense mode, backs pressed up against a wall of looming threats to all forms of life on earth — terrestrial and aquatic; mammalian, avian, and amphibian.
Whether or not Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson is right when he estimates that we are losing 30,000 species per year — that’s three species per hour — there is no denying that this is a time of loss. “We are monitoring everywhere in a rapidly changing landscape. It’s incredibly frustrating,” Virani told me. “There is no feel-good effect in this work.”
By all reckoning, it’s too late for the vultures. By the time scientists isolated a livestock drug as the cause of the deaths, 95 percent of the population had crashed in less than a decade, and there weren’t enough left in the wild to begin a captive breeding program.
Halfway around the world, in the Pacific Northwest, spotted owls find themselves in the same dire straits. Last month, Sierra Legal, a Canadian environmental organization, leaked a 50-page report by the Spotted Owl Protection and Enhancement Team, a group of scientists hired by the government of British Columbia to make a recommendation about how to address the rapid decline of the species. Ten years ago, there were a hundred pairs of spotted owls in B.C. Today there are less than two dozen of the owls that became the symbol of the Pacific Northwest logging wars of the 1990s. A prescient symbol, it turns out. It was old-growth logging or spotted owl habitat. One couldn’t have both. The team’s recommendation is to collect every last wild spotted owl and begin a captive breeding program, if the species is to survive.
These captive breeding programs have worked before. Peregrine falcons, like the ones that now frequent Bryant Park in Manhattan, were wiped out by the effects of the pesticide DDT forty years ago. They were reintroduced after pioneering breeding efforts made by the then newly established Peregrine Fund. Congress passed laws — DDT was made illegal and the Endangered Species Act cloaked the critters that were teetering on the edge — and the bred birds were reintroduced to the wild. They survived, and in places, thrived.
But the list of threats to the spotted owl population is long (14 separate items are detailed in the report), and we still like to live in wooden houses milled from their habitat, still haven’t even begun to address climate change, still haven’t stopped the logging practices that created the mangy-dog landscape of the Cascade Mountain range that make the spotted owls more vulnerable to their greatest predators and competitors: barred and great horned owls. Unless efforts are made to alleviate the pressures on these vulnerable species, then we can breed ’til the cows come home (no threat of extinction there) and there will still be no wild places to safely release our test tube creations into.
The SOPET authors readily acknowledge this fact, urging a “commitment” to protecting wild spotted owl habitat even as the last Strix occidentalis are swept up and carted off for containment, but they remain eerily silent on “threats/issues of concern” No. 6 (habitat fragmentation) and No. 7 (habitat loss), as though drawing an artificial line between policy and biology. But the two are intricately intertwined and the policy changes that follow will need to be serious and comprehensive; they will need to involve actual sacrifice on the part of humans. Meanwhile, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposes a recovery plan for the northern spotted owl that continues to diminish protections of the old-growth forest the owl is dependent upon for habitat.
Yet, somehow, there is still an inherent hope expressed in even the bleak task of monitoring to extinction. Munir Virani and other conservation biologists are gathering information from the dwindling wild world so that someday, in some imaginable future when one single species isn’t dominating and altering the entire planet, we will have the scientific information to guide us. They recognize that they are working against nearly impossible odds. They know, for now, that it is a vulture in the lab or no vulture at all. Like a romantic who always falls for the wrong object of affection, conservation biologists are drawn to a profession in a time that seems to offer almost nothing but heartbreak. We hear the numbers, and they glance off our consciousness. But then there is that one bird, that one creature, that you remember from your youth, that you became aware of as a teen, that entered your consciousness as an adult, and it’s gone. It hasn’t just moved north with a shifting climate, along with the peach trees and butterflies. It is gone. Dead as a dodo.
How long ’til we get the hard fact that the indicator species that are disappearing are pointing a ghostly finger — tentacle, talon, hoof, claw — in our direction? A language we don’t understand or are incapable of hearing is whispering, “This will affect you.” Young people armed with Kryptonite locks and incendiary devices took to the logging roads and ski resorts to try to translate the message to the mainstream, who wrote them off because of their unsociable black hoodies, unkempt hair, and dangerous ways. The FBI’s Operation Backfire swept up the “eco-terrorists,” who are safely sequestered in jail for many years to come. Jails, zoos, hmm.
Last month I was visiting my old home in rural Oregon. I stood outside around midnight, an umbrella of blackness punctuated by stars overhead. There was a stillness city dwellers can barely conceptualize. The adjacent 40 acres is Bureau of Land Management property, a steep hillside covered with great old trees that provide homes for hives of wild bees, for pileated woodpeckers and even for a pair of spotted owls, documented and certified. Those two birds of prey are the only things between that grove of Douglas firs and a chainsaw, the only reason the trees haven’t been transformed into board feet. As I stood in the darkness, I heard the distinct four-note call of the spotted owl, whoop … wo-hu … hoo. The sound of the wild. They may survive in zoos, the way I sometimes feel like I survive in the city, but will they live?
If we scour the landscape of the Pacific Northwest, sweeping up the last few owls that have survived into this precarious future and cart them off to zoos and labs for a lifetime of forced procreation and artificial insemination, yet do nothing to address the systemic causes of extinction, we’ll be losing more than a species. We’ll be losing something we seem incapable of even recognizing, and there is no feel-good effect in that.