"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Conservation Or Evolution–Why Save The Spotted Owl?

On a recent walk on the C&O Canal near Washington, DC, I had a chance to chat with a nature photographer who had set up his camera on the towpath and was photographing a Barred Owl perched half way up a sycamore tree.

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I have always been on the lookout for owls on the Canal, but in over 30 years I have seen only one or two.  I assumed that they were rare, and any sighting was indeed lucky.

“Not so”, said the naturalist. “There are barred owl pairs every two or three miles along the Canal”.  The C&O Canal was built in the late 1800s to carry freight by mule-drawn barge  between Washington and Cumberland, Maryland.  Service was discontinued in 1924 when canal traffic became obsolete with the introduction of the railroad; but the government purchased the land and transformed it into a 185-mile long National Park.

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“Not only are they common”, the naturalist went on, “they are a hardy, aggressive species, and are quickly moving west as their habitat shrinks in the DC area.  All well and good”, he went on, “except that they are moving into the territory of the Spotted Owl, a seriously endangered species.”

Conservationists have for decades fought to preserve the habitats of the Spotted Owl, efforts which have put them in direct opposition to loggers who argued that they were losing tens of millions of dollars of revenue because of unfair environmental restrictions.

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In the mid-Seventies as the environmental movement gained momentum, the US government blocked the construction of the Tellico Dam on the East Tennessee River to preserve the habitat of the endangered Snail Darter.  Everyone except environmentalists cried foul since the dam was planned to produce energy that was much needed by residents of the state.  After a long legal battle, the Supreme Court decided in favor of environmentalists and the Snail Darter and forced the stoppage of construction of the dam.

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Battle lines have been sharply drawn ever since.  Conservationists argue that every species is of value because it is a part of the ecosystem, a complex network of interlocking relationships which define our planet. The Snail Darter is part of the chain of life.  It eats smaller creatures beneath it on the phylogenetic scale and in turn is eaten by those above it.  If the Snail Darter were to become extinct, the ecosystem would be disrupted.  Predators would go hungry, die out, cause famine above and below, and a negative chain reaction affecting both flora and fauna would result.

Those who favor economic development argue that there have been thousands of extinctions in the world without any major catastrophe, so why should some species be protected while others quietly go the way of evolution?  The Carolina Parakeet was killed en masse and went extinct because it was considered a pest, ravaging the fruit crops of farmers.  No one has recorded any butterfly effect, let alone any more immediate environmental dislocation.

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is thought to be extinct, although there have been a number of unconfirmed sightings.  Its extinction was the result of aggressive logging throughout the South, and beginning in the 1940s a large, healthy population living in the extensive bottomlands of the area, began to decline and finally disappear.

Once again, there have been no recorded environmental damage or major disruption in the ecosystem because of the bird’s demise. In the 19th century alone the following animals went extinct with no recorded environmental consequences: the Mysterious Starling, Mauritius Blue Pigeon, Tonga Ground Skink, Falkland Islands Wolf, the Sea Mink, the Quagga, Hokkaido Wolf, Atlas Bear, and Eastern Elk among others. The number of insects and plants which have gone extinct are too numerous to mention.

If there are no major ecological consequences to animal and plant extinction, why should we worry?  Species come and go, evolve in mysterious ways, pop up as viruses and bacteria, and new species are discovered deep in the rainforest or in an urban environment.  Pictured below is the Atlantic Coast Leopard Frog recently discovered in the marshes around Staten Island.  It has never been seen before, and represents a unique evolutionary event.

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The endangered species is a symbol more than any one plant or animal.  It represents to many an idyllic natural world which is being destroyed by the predation of aggressive laissez-faire capitalism.  There is no need to destroy living creatures for the sole satisfaction of material human wants, conservationists say.  Man, plants, and animals should be able to co-exist.  There is, they say, such a thing as an equilibrium between Man and Nature, and we must all be attuned to it and see that it is not disturbed.

To loggers, industrialists, commercial farmers, and the unemployed the protection of endangered species is yet another unwanted government intervention – an academic, elitist attempt to preserve a romantic past which for them has absolutely no relevance.

There is, however, a third group of critics who although less vociferous in their opinions than either ‘developers’ or ‘conservationists’ have a more reasoned and salient argument.  The ecosystem includes man, they say, and the evolution of the planet is a function of the interaction of all creatures.  Man no doubt kills things and forces them into extinction, but he will someday go extinct as well. 

Who is to say when man’s demise will come or how?. It may come in a fiery Armageddon resulting from conflicting drives for territory, dominance, and power. It may come from new strains of bacteria that emerge out of the thicket of antibiotics and are resistant to all. It may result from ignorance, arrogance, and indifference. Jungle viruses like Ebola, long dismissed as monkey problems, may rage through human populations and kill off vast swaths of entire continents. Human extinction may come from ELE – an Extinction Level Event like a wayward asteroid or comet – a purely chance happening that annihilates in one random explosion the greatest animal ever created and everything else along with it.

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This view is not only shared by Nihilists or Historical Determinists but enshrined in religious canon.  Every religion believes that only God controls the fate of man.  It is His hand that guides both the duck’s wing and the hunters’ shot. He has a plan for man, the earth, and the universe; and no matter what we do, affecting that divine plan is impossible.

Many religions have a belief in the afterlife, an eternity spent either in heaven or hell, or at least in some world of infinite time.  Given that belief, then anything that happens in our short four-score lifespan, is insignificant and hardly worth noting. 

Hinduism, perhaps the world’s most evolved religion, posits that the world is illusion, and that the only reality is a spiritual one.  Acts done by or to human beings are irrelevant because they will always happen according to temporal determinants which mean nothing in the timeless universality of God.  The only purpose of man on earth is to realize and understand this reality, and to reach a final spiritual communion with God.

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It is hard to react with equanimity, religious resolve, or a dismissive Nihilism when the Chesapeake Bay oyster population approaches the point of no return.  We join Save the Bay, buy from new artisanal oyster farmers on the lower Rappahannock, demand controls on herbicide runoff, and do everything in our power to keep the watermen in their skiffs.  The same is true for Striped Bass, Copper River salmon, and monkfish.  They taste good, and all philosophical injunctions are put aside in our desire to keep them on the table.

Yet, if they disappear we will eat something else.  We will forage, become vegetarian, or move on to Kansas City beef.  There are more black squirrels in Washington than ever before and more rabbits than on the prairie.  Bluebirds, Baltimore Orioles, and wrens haven’t been seen in decades and they may be extinct; but songbirds which love the urban environment are thriving.  There are fewer old growth forests but more landscaping.  Frederick Law Olmsted would be pleased at the growth of urban landscape architecture.  New York’s High Line and Paris’ Promenade Plantee are perfect examples of the introduction of nature into the city.

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In short, life is an evolution.  Nothing has intrinsic value.  All things will change, disappear, or evolve. It is only human arrogance which drives us to the conclusion that we are unique, special, and irreplaceable; that our actions can deter or alter God’s plan; and that ‘we can make a difference’.  It is time to let go.

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