By Kirk Robinson,
Executive Director of Western Wildlife Conservancy, and
Advisor to the Coalition for All Wildlife
Wildlife advocacy and political activism require us to make a moral commitment to the goals of conservation. Unfortunately, the choices are not always easy ones because moral ideals often conflict and we must choose between them or settle for doing nothing. But that’s often how it is with moral issues. If choices were always obvious and easy, they wouldn’t demand much of us, and we would be much the less for it.
The reason I bring this up is because the wild animals that I (we) care about and are trying to protect and conserve are frequently killed by people who hate them or value them only as trophies, which raises the question whether we should even try to recover or protect them. This is particularly the case with the Mexican wolf because it is a subspecies of wolf that is languishing under the feckless stewardship of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Nothing significant has yet been done to further the recovery of the Mexican wolf without a law suit brought by conservation organizations. And of course a big part of the reason for this is the pushback from the states that don’t want wolves, period, never mind the Endangered Species Act. This is because the western states are dominated politically by the mindless traditional view that all native predators have to be either eliminated or strictly controlled by lethal means.
So what are we to do about this? When Western Wildlife Conservancy first started 20 years ago (then called the Utah Cougar Coalition), my charge from the board (which I inherited) was to end cougar hunting in Utah within one year. Well, of course that didn’t happen. Nor was it even politically possible. Fortunately, while members of the board conspired to try to remove me, the bylaws that they themselves adopted made that difficult, and instead they resigned one by one, allowing me to choose a new board that understood the political realities of carnivore conservation. The original members of the board had good hearts, but were clueless about what it would actually take to get the job done and weren’t up to the task of developing a long term strategy and sticking with it. Furthermore, they had no understanding of ecology and the way in which species, as members of communities of organisms, depend upon each other: their mutual thriving is a matter of mutual dependence; the good of each is dependent upon the good of all (considered as members of species). They loved animals, but they lacked this critical perspective.
What about the Mexican wolf? Human beings drove it nearly to extinction, leaving only seven of them to become founders of a recovery effort. Canis lupus baileyi was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act way back in 1976 and recovery efforts began 18 years ago with reintroductions into the wild.
After many years of slow growth, then population stagnation, there was a short run of years in which the population in the wild grew – reaching 110 at the end of 2014. But this only happened because of law suits. As of now the count is down to 97 – a 12% decline. There were eleven known deaths, plus two more that were apparently due to trauma from capture by FWS (wolves are periodically captured for various reasons, such as to fit them with radio collars), and probably a few others that we don’t know about, as there were several “missing” wolves. The point is that a lot of these wolves are being illegally killed (and a few unintentionally killed), which is in turn causing some deaths of pups (pup survival was greatly reduced this last year). Thus, one might well ask – and I think we really should ask – whether it is ethically proper for us to continue the Mexican wolf recovery effort. (I want to emphasize that these killings are not properly called poachings. That’s what you call killing a deer out of season or without a license. We’re talking here about malicious killings by people who would be happy to wipe out all wolves if they could.)
Individual wolves count. Their lives count. They are conscious, intelligent, emotional beings in their own right. So why should we continue to release captive individuals into the wild if they stand a serious chance of being killed by an ignorant yahoo? It is a fair question to ask – never mind that recovery is mandated by the ESA.
I understand and appreciate the dilemma – both horns of it: either we continue the effort to recover the Mexican wolf or it will go extinct. Neither of these options is attractive and there is no third option. Thus, each of us must choose for ourselves where we stand. Obviously, I am for continuing the effort with determination and passion. I believe we have a duty to do so. But that is my judgment. You might disagree.
This doesn’t mean that I am content to allow the recovery effort to plod along or to just accept the illegal killings. Far from it. What we want is not just conservation, but compassionate conservation. Indeed, this is a whole new field that has opened up in the last five years or so. And in the case of the Mexican wolf, what it means is that we have to pressure the Fish and Wildlife Service to do more to prevent the illegal killings of Mexican wolves, and not only to release more captive wolves into the wild. What we want in the end is a genetically viable, self-sustaining, and ecologically functional population of wolves that human beings simply leave alone.
Among other things, I believe this means that they must retrieve radio receivers that FWS handed out to ranchers living in the vicinity of Mexican wolves, which they can use to learn the whereabouts of wolves. The FWS originally gave several ranchers receivers because they thought it would make them less hostile to the recovery effort if they could avoid moving their livestock into areas where wolves are present. While we don’t know for certain that this has enabled illegal wolf killings, it clearly places wolves at greater risk. Thus, many of us believe that it would be prudent to take the receivers away.
Another thing the federal government could do is invest more in finding and capturing and prosecuting the law breakers. Of course, resources are limited, making this difficult. And resources are limited because the livestock lobby is so very powerful – never mind that only about 2% of national beef production comes from the arid western states. The Republicans in Congress – Utah’s Congressman Bishop being a prime example – are passionately committed to doing all they can to make the Endangered Species Act ineffective. That’s just the truth and is not meant to be partisan.
We live in a democracy – supposedly. What this means is that we citizens have the ultimate responsibility to make it work properly and to change the status quo when it needs changing. Otherwise we might as well live under a monarchy or theocracy or dictatorship of some sort, where we only have to obey. My view, therefore, is that it is up to us citizens to bring about improvements in wildlife conservation and management, and in other areas of civil life. We can’t just leave it to the government or to the good will of people who lack good will. If we are unwilling to rise to this challenge, then probably the best thing would be for us to just admit it to ourselves and give up. I am not willing to do this, so the alternative for me is to keep going no matter what obstacles are thrown up by the obstructionists.
I am not willing to give up, not just because I am stubborn – though maybe I am that too – but because, wildlife conservation aside, I want democracy to succeed and believe it is partly my responsibility to make it succeed. And to be perfectly frank about it, though this admission might strike some as a display of the utmost arrogance, I hold myself in high esteem and regard it as beneath my dignity as a human being to allow myself such an easy out. I won’t settle for a life of ignorance and complacency. And you shouldn’t either.
A great extinction is underway – the sixth major one in Earth history, the last one having occurred approximately 65 million years ago. The difference is that that one was mainly due to an asteroid colliding with Earth, while this one is entirely due to us – a very young species on Earth as far as that goes. For all our noontime brilliance (and, as a species we have demonstrated great brilliance), we are in the process of destroying all that is good. The world we are rapidly creating is one that by the end of the 21st Century, if nothing changes, will be devoid of most large-bodies species living in the wild, both on land and in the sea, and absent any truly wild places.
I recently finished a new book, published just this year, titled “The Society of Genes.” The first chapter of this book explains in very clear terms how cancers develop. The development always goes through eight stages serially. Maybe the same is true of life on Earth, with the great extinctions marking the stages. When human beings are through with the Earth, the way things are going, it not only will be devoid of all the glorious species that have evolved over the eons, but it won’t afford a life worth living for human beings either. That will essentially be the death of the planet. Maybe new biodiversity will evolve in the subsequent 50-100 million years (it will take about that long), but one can only hope that the big evolutionary dead-end of primates with big brains that they don’t know how to use won’t be repeated.
Okay, granted, the scenario I just described doesn’t have to play out. But it is a virtual certainty unless we make sure it doesn’t. And doing this will require three things of us besides our big brains: thoughtful moral vision, self-determination, and courage.
Photo: Jim Clark, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service / Wikimedia Commons / “This image or recording is the work of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain.”/ A captive Mexican wolf at the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico.