Conserving distinct ecological units

I have an interest in diverse life forms, and when I become interested in a species, I sometimes become somewhat obsessed, trying to learn all that I can – I want to know more, and more. The result is that no matter how much I learn, I am always humbled by how little we as humans actually know and understand about the animals in which we share our environment.

As many of you know, I spent a couple of decades obsessed with learning about our native Rocky Mountain wolf, trying to compile what little recorded history existed for this unique subspecies, and arguing about subspecific distinctions and whether they could/should be based on size distinctions, genetics, behavior, etc.

Living in western Wyoming, I see wild horses often, and started wondering about them as well. Different herds in specific areas have distinct color patterns that reflect the herd sire. Some stud horses tried to defend territories, while others only defended his mares. Jim and I watched a stud horse trying to kill a colt that obviously wasn’t his. Animal behavior is fascinating to watch and I wanted to know more, so I went to the Bureau of Land Management office to start going through the wild horse records, to see what I could learn. What I learned was that the BLM had started capturing studs and moving them around to various places on the range, trying to improve the color patterns of the herds. Nothing scientific, just the personal preferences of agency personnel. Within a few years, I could see the changes. The band of dark bays with thick necks suddenly had appaloosa or paint markings, and white feet. Argh. I quit looking and didn’t want to know any more. Of course, later research reveals that before this pick-a-color and move it around program began, genetic research on the dark horses revealed Spanish Barb origin.

This seems to be a constant pattern with wildlife managers – moving animals around nilly-willy, with little or no concern for the consequences.

Need more Sonoran pronghorn? Here, have some fawns from Wyoming’s pronghorn population. I kid you not – this took place just a few years ago.

Need some wolves in Wyoming? Here, have some from Canada. Bighorn sheep from Wyoming have been transplanted all over the western United States. Different bighorn subspecies (not native to this area) have been transplanted here as well, in hopes that the new subspecies won’t be migratory.

I recently filed an interlibrary loan request for a book about golden eagles and later came upon the obituary of the author. He had taken golden eagle chicks from Scotland and reintroduced them into Kazakhstan. I’m still trying to figure out golden eagle subspecies and where they are located (subject of a future post), only to learn that we’ve muddied that subject as well.

Those who care about primitive and aboriginal dogs and livestock seem to have a better handle on the importance of distinct ecological units than many wildlife managers. Even fisheries professionals are backing away from the old mentality of transplanting sport fish everywhere, regardless of the origin of the transplant and status of native species.

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) mandates the conservation of endangered species, and Congress went so far as to define species to include “any subspecies of fish or wildlife or plants, and any distinct population segment of any species …”. Unfortunately, the current standard practiced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is that anything less than a species is entirely “discretionary” when it comes to deserving or qualifying for protection. Our legal system has let the agency get away with all the “discretion” it wants.

I wrote about my concern in the epilogue to my book Yellowstone Wolves: A Chronology of the Animal, the People, and the Politics:

In a 1987 paper in Social Studies of Science entitled “Paradigms
and ferrets,” Tim Clark and Ron Westrum questioned the adequacy
of traditional wildlife management approaches when applied to
endangered species, using the black-footed ferret as a case study.
They used the term “ecology of applied ignorance” to describe
the influence of expectation on perception, which is based
on four concepts:what is expected is what is looked for;
what is looked for is what is seen; what is unexpected is
unobserved; and what is unexpected is unreported.

Clark and Westrum provided specific examples of how each of
these concepts have led to faulty “scientific reality,” which, given
time and additional observation, were corrected. These expectations
are a powerful force, with powerful social effects. Since survival of
an organization is a natural goal for its members, Clark and
Westrum assert, “It is only human for an organization’s scientists
to be more favorable to facts and theories which present it
[the organization] in a positive light.” In addition, an organization’s
stance on an issue can become an anchoring point for future opinion. 

Success in science leads to recognition, which leads to power,
as evidenced by control of access to research sites and funding,
gatekeeping of publications, and even the ability
to determine what is to be considered “scientifically competent.”

“In time what was merely a consensus begins to appear as objective
fact. Critiques of the established view are received with surprise,
incomprehension and ridicule,” according to Clark and Westrum.

“As the establishment becomes larger and more dominant, it can
present its critics as misguided, badly informed or even dishonest.”

Thus, the scientific establishment represents a concentration of
both opinion and power, and if unopposed and not subject to
criticism, can become too self-centered and close-minded
to actually accomplish its objectives, such as preserving
endangered species.

The quest for taxonomic truth in wildlife seems to have been
abandoned, as wildlife management has turned to pursuit of
homogenized species. Cases abound as wildlife managers
move animals around without regard to maintaining the
taxonomic integrity of ecological forms, affecting everything
from numerous fish species and orangutans to pronghorn
antelope and bighorn sheep.

The determination of what constitutes a species, subspecies,
and a distinct population is a critical factor in future
implementation of the ESA. The words of the act are powerful,
including the provision calling for conservation of threatened
and endangered species, including “any subspecies of fish or
wildlife or plants, and any distinct population segment of any
species.” Taxonomic units lower than subspecies
are to be protected, according to the law, including those
“distinct population segments,” which should be reason to
rejoice. But it is not.

… Today, FWS is busy delisting large carnivore populations
that it designates “distinct population segments” — not
because of any real ecological distinction, but because of the
distinctions of jurisdictional lines, including state boundaries.”

Anyone care to weigh in on this subject matter?