In Search of Things That Might Not Be There
Wild places are important not just to wildlife but also to our own imaginations.
Last weekend my fiancée and I joined the Wolverine Tracking Project and a group of trackers scouring the Mt. Hood National Forest for signs of wolverines and other rare predators. If there are still wolverines in Oregon, Mt. Hood is a good place to look – the last wolverine confirmed in Oregon was hit by a car on I-84 in the Columbia River Gorge in 1992 (other potential spots include roadless areas in the Wallowa, Blue, Cascade and even Steens Mountains). While we didn’t find any signs of wolverines, the outing reinforced in me the importance of protecting big wild places -- for the animals that need them to survive, but also for ourselves and our imaginations.
I have always been fascinated by cryptozoology – the study of animals whose existence is in question. Sometimes cryptozoology focuses on the fantastical -- The Loch Ness Monster, Champy, and the Jersey Devil. Sometimes it addresses the close to home and hotly debated – think Sasquatch.
Sometimes, like in the case of the coelacanth (a fish thought to have disappeared alongside the dinosaurs), those crazy cryptozoologists were proven right. Sadly, in far too many instances, pragmatists and dreamers alike still wait to be vindicated as they search for creatures like the Tasmanian tiger, ivory-billed woodpecker, and eskimo curlew. They are all animals we have likely lost due to shortsightedness and the need to make a quick buck.
A less esoteric interest of mine is my fascination with big predators that we know exist –animals like bears, wolves, cougars, and wolverines. Like all native wildlife that co-evolved with one-another and predate our presence in Oregon, I believe that they have a right to thrive in our state.
To survive and flourish, big predators need wild places – for the stable prey base that they support, and because the biggest threat they face is conflict with humans. To ensure that our remaining predators stay under the purview of wildlife biologists and not cryptozoologists, we need to protect our roadless wildlands and wilderness.
I think my fascination for both cryptozoology and big predators is that I like the idea that there is still more out there to be discovered. It’s certainly cool when scientists discover a new insect or subspecies of worm. But I like the idea that there are still places where big animals could live out their lives without conflict or even interaction with humans. I like the idea that there are places where humans aren’t in charge.
Likewise, while it’s great to know that those places might exist in Southeast Asia, Equatorial Africa, and Brazil, I like it even more when they’re places in my own back yard. It’s the reason many of us in the West are here!
I like to think we’ll be given a second chance with species like the ivory-billed woodpecker. Closer to home, I hope we’ll keep the welcome mat out for species like wolves, lynx, wolverines, and grizzly bears. If we give them a chance, we might just be surprised at what comes back. Big wild places aren’t just habitat for wild creatures, they are places for our imaginations to have some hope of being realized.
In a world in which our connection with the natural world – what I’d call the real world – seems to be lessening with each generation, taking a day to look for tracks of an animal that may not even be here is pretty cool. So was seeing a group of kids get excited about fresh bobcat tracks in the snow.
Oregon Wild will be leading a tracking trip with tracking expert Pat Clancy on March 7th. Get more details and sign-up here.