Great Dysfunction in Conservation Today

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By: Dr. Dave Samuel
By: Dr. Dave Samuel

Every once in a while you read an article that just grabs you.  Something that just seems to be point on, and something you want to share with others.  Dan Ashe is Director of the U S Fish and Wildlife Service and recently he made a presentation to the Western Media Summit and I found his remarks important and I want to bring them to you.  Some of what follows are his comments.  Some are mine that were generated by his comments.

As a back drop, let me indicate something you already know.  The news is filled with negative situations.  There is little optimism about most facets of our life.  We’ve got global terrorism, Congress can’t seem to get things done.  We’ve got political fighting that is beyond comprehension.  There is the immigration issues.  We seem hell bent on providing financial security to everyone, many of which have not earned it.

From an ecology position, things are changing daily.  Diseases are impacting wildlife in ways we have never seen before.  Salamanders are threatened worldwide.  In many parts of the country white-nose syndrome has killed 90 percent of our bats.   Chronic wasting disease is spreading and all that politicians do is take control of game farms away from the state DNR’s because they are too restrictive and turn control over to Departments of Agriculture.  What that does enhance the chance for the spread of CWD to our wild deer.  Obviously such decisions are totally based on politics and not biology.

Over 7 billion humans now pollute our Earth.  As Ashe points out, that is now further compounded because as our influence spreads, others want to be like us.  They want electricity, health care, education, clean water, better and more food, etc.  All good things to have, but all put more stress on the environment.

In response to this burgeoning human population, the oceans are being over fished.  Air pollution is having major impacts on our world.  Ashe noted that more than 90 percent of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has experienced bleaching.  We cannot keep treating the ocean like a garbage dump.

Then there are the weather changing problems.  We have more droughts, more wild fires, more water problems, then ever before.  Some (many) want to blame the weather changes on global warming.  While there is no doubt that it is slightly warmer in the northern hemisphere than it was 50 years ago, there are many (and I am one) that do not believe this is caused by man.  I believe that this is part of a natural cycle.  We’ve seen the planet warm up before.  Many generations from now, maybe a century away, we’ll see it warm up again. But today there are impacts.

Throw in all the exotic plant and animals that have been dumped into the woods and waters of our country, exotics that negatively impact our native plants and wildlife.  Asian carp, Burmese pythons, iguanas, etc.  I could list hundreds of species here.  Water shortages impact California agriculture and waterfowl habitat.

Road killed deer maybe as close as many urbanites get to wildlife.
Road killed deer maybe as close as many urbanites get to wildlife.

Conservation takes a back seat to development.  Example: ethanol isn’t good for our engines, lowers gas mileage, yet we plow under millions of acres of prime wildlife habitat formerly in the Conservation Reserve Program, to grow more corn.  The loss of CRP lands is part of the reason for deer decline in farm country.  Wildlife on those CRP fields provides more economic benefit than corn, but political lobbying seems to rule.

Ashe goes on to point out problems that are hard to imagine.   One issue he raises bothers me more than any other and that is this idea of selling off our public land.   This issue has tremendous implications for fish and wildlife, for fishing, hunting, hiking, etc., and yet the public doesn’t get it.  Evidently some politicians don’t get it.  They don’t seem to understand the major implications in selling federal lands to states.  Ashe believes we should get rid of (he used the phrase…”have zero tolerance for”) politicians at all levels of government who want to sell of any of our public lands.  I totally agree.

Ashe notes that conservation is not relevant to society today.  He is right.  Conservation is definitely relevant to hunters and anglers and others who enjoy the outdoors.  But, as Ashe pointed out in his presentation, people live in cities today.  Various minority groups are now the majority in some, and growing, areas.  All this means that fewer people hunt and fish, and hike and canoe, etc., and so they do not see relevance to conservation.  It’s hard to generate funding for conservation in such a situation where people find conservation irrelevant.  Scary.

Today fewer people experience the outdoors.
Today fewer people experience the outdoors.

Here is what Ashe thinks we need to do to change the direction relative to making conservation relevant again.  First, we need to “unite these great disciplines (fish, wildlife, range, and forestry) and see conservation in a larger context, and design conservation on a larger scale.”

Second, as mentioned above, “we have to have zero tolerance for politicians, at all levels of government, who support divestiture of public lands.”  He goes on to say that in this election year we need a true Sportsmen’s Platform, not “platitudes about rights to hunt and fish,” but a platform that includes clean air and water, protection of habitat, and we need to elect politicians who will “stand behind the professional servants who dedicate their lives to conserving wild places and wild creatures.”  In other words, we need politicians who listen to trained professionals on wildlife issues and quit screwing up things by making political decisions that are not in the best interest of wildlife.  I realize that state wildlife agencies are not perfect.  They usually don’t have enough money to do all they need to do, all they want to do.  But when politicians start making decisions on wildlife issues, we’ve got serious problems.

Third, “we need a professional ethic that unites us as a community.”  Conservationists need to stop picking at each other because that divides us.  Fourth, we need to broaden our base and make it easier for urban citizens to experience nature.

He ended his talk stating that we need leaders to step up. Almost all of our conservation leaders in the past have come from rural backgrounds.  Most were hunters.  But in the future, the leaders of conservation will come from urban backgrounds.  It has to happen that way because that is where most people live.  The future leaders of conservation will not be hunters or fishers.  They will not have camped in the woods.  Now finding such urban conservation leaders will not be easy.  Actually it sounds pessimistic to me, but Ashe is right.  Those leaders will be urbanites, with little experience in the wilds of nature.

More women are hunting than ever before, but overall hunter numbers are fairly stagnant.
More women are hunting than ever before, but overall hunter numbers are fairly stagnant.

He is right in that we need our public lands, now more than ever, if we are to get urbanites into the outdoors.  Making conservation relevant to a more urbanized society will be important if we are to keep conservation from becoming dysfunctional.  And electing politicians that will not play politics with biological decisions made by trained employees who manage fish, wildlife, and habitat.

Like I said from the outset, Ashe’s presentation was one to get people thinking about our future.  Now, do I believe we can make conservation relevant to the growing urban masses amid all the chaos of ISIS, poaching in Africa, global warming, millions of displaced citizens starving all over the world, etc.?  Do I believe we can find conservation leaders in an urban society?  I want to believe that is possible, but in truth, I’m really not sure we can.

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