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Of Mammals and Men

Posted by Sean Stevens at Apr 13, 2009 12:11 PM |

The Endangered Species Act--managing the human species.

Of Mammals and Men

Sea otters might be making a return to Oregon, but how will they be welcomed? (National Park Service)

This morning, a colleague forwarded me an editorial that ran in today's print version of the New York Times. In it, editorial author Verlyn Klinkenborg grapples with the recent decision to remove endangered species protections for gray wolves in the northern Rockies region (that includes the eastern third of Oregon). The decision is a carry-over from the Bush administration, and as Klinkenborg points out, a highly political one.

The essay discusses the successful reintroduction of wolves to the West that began in Yellowstone in the mid-nineties, looks at the current political climate in places like Idaho, where the governor has vowed to vie for the right to shoot the first wolf once the species is delisted, and examines the relationship between humankind and the other inhabitants of this planet.


It is on the last point that Klinkenborg really caught my attention. From the editorial:

The way the wolf has been delisted, this time, is a reminder that what we are really doing when we protect endangered and threatened species is managing our own species. (emphasis added)

There is mounting evidence that the industrial age brought about by humans is causing an unprecedented rate of extinction. Recent reports pin the current rate at 100 to 1,000 times a normal or background rate. That's a plant or animal disappearing from this earth every 20 minutes according to one researcher.

As Klinkenborg points out, not all extinctions are merely a byproduct of the march of human civilization--some are the direct result of our animosity towards other species. A few examples help to make the point.

There is no better place to start than with the wolf. Long reviled for its snarling teeth and lethal efficiency, the gray wolf Howling Wolfonce roamed almost the entire United States until trappers, bounty hunters, and civil servants armed with poison eradicated the top predator from our borders. Their return in the past two decades has spurred ecological recovery across the landscape, most notably in Yellowstone National Park where streamside vegetation has bounced back after years of overgrazing. Today, in nearly every portion of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, wolves have boosted elk populations by preying on weak and sick animals.

Still, misinformation and hostility remain. One of the three primary reasons cited by US District Judge Donald Molloy in his decision last year to reinstate protections for wolves was the lack of genetic diversity across the wolf's range. This rational led one Wyoming lawmaker to ask why a wolf was allowed to roam the countryside just because "he was on his way to a mosh-pit genetic connectivity event." With attitudes like that, it's no wonder wolves are under fire.

Of course wolves aren't the only species that people feel threatened by. The northern spotted owl has been the continual source of consternation since a forty-year timber binge nearly wiped the species from the planet. Almost 20 years since the bird was afforded federal protections, the old line of "putting owls before people" appears in regional newspapers once a month.

However, owls and wolves are no surprise. Their importance to the ecosystems they inhabit is as well documented as the hatred many people inexplicably feel towards them. The animosity that was not so expected, at least to me, was the sentiment expressed just this year when sea otters returned to Oregon's coast for the first time in decades.

Sea otters were hunted to near extinction in the later part of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Their fur (the finest of any mammal at up to 1 million hairs per square inch) formed the backbone of a trade that spanned the globe. In Oregon they hadn't been seen for over 100 years until one was spotted in February in Depoe Bay. Well, it was sort of the first one. Turns out that local biologists have been getting reports of sea otter sightings for years, but feared letting the broader public know.

When I read that, I was confused. We aren't trading sea otter furs anymore--who would want to hurt one of those cute little guys?

Well, it turns out that cute, extremely rare, and vital to the coastal marine ecosystem is not enough to keep you out of the cross hairs. When sea otters were eliminated, urchin populations boomed. Though that meant the destruction of our kelp forests, it also meant money for a small handful of local urchin hunters. And where there are humans, money, and endangered species involved, things do not go well. From the Eugene Register Guard:

Jerome Grant of Depoe Bay dove for urchins for 15 years until last year when his restaurant, the Sea Hag, started taking up too much of his time to allow for fishing.

He said he’s fine with nature taking its course if that’s how sea otters return to Oregon, but he wouldn’t want to see another attempt to plant them here.

"The Oregon Coast is a rugged coast," Grant said. "I don’t know where sea otters would find shelter except in the estuaries. And if otters get a toehold in the estuaries, it’s not urchins you have to worry about. They would also feed on clams, Dungeness crab. They get these superpods of up to 50,000 animals and then the population collapses when they eat themselves out of food."

Other urchin harvesters are less forgiving. Lowe said he’s had fishermen tell him, "If an otter showed up here, we’d take care of it."

That's the kind of language usually reserved for wolves. ("Shoot. Shovel. And shut up." or "Smoke a pack a day.") To think that the terrifying sea otter elicits such a reaction is, well, terrifying.

As the effects of global warming, and our ever-expanding human population continue to put more and more of the global plant and animal community at risk, Klinkenborg's words will take on more meaning.

Idaho's Governor Butch Otter says that a controlled wolf hunt that eliminates all but 100 of the 800 wolves currently living in the state is "responsible management." It begs the question: "what does responsible management of our own species look like?"

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