Pheasants and the future of conservation

Last weekend I went pheasant hunting in southwestern Nebraska.  I hunt like I fish, which means that it’s the process rather than the results that matter most.  I am only a fair shot and I am usually caught woefully off guard when we flush a rooster, but walking through a grassland on a crisp, clear November morning, marveling at the dogs as they work, is immensely enjoyable for me.

The warm weather meant that the pheasants were free to leave the comfy confines of the grasslands and head to where the food was – wheat and milo fields:

A beautiful day in a very typical Nebraska landscape

A beautiful day in a very typical Nebraska landscape

Most wheat stubble is shorter than this, but Nebraska pays some farmers to keep stubble tall and to allow public access because taller cover benefits wildlife (read: pheasants) and because people like me like to shoot (at) pheasants.

As I walked through the wheat (non-native, monoculture crop) looking for pheasants (non-native, intensively managed species), I found myself wondering whether I was meeting and greeting the future of conservation.  What do I mean by that?  It’s not front-page news (unlike the mayor of Toronto, god bless his soul!), but there is currently a battle between “new conservationists” and the old-guard of conservation biology about how to define the goals of conservation science.  Here are some quotes* from a recent paper written by Peter Kareiva and Michelle Marvier (you can download it here), that summarize some key differences between classic and new conservation:

As a direct result of conservation, economic well-being has, in some instances, been harmed, and there are well-documented instances of human communities having been unjustly displaced and disrupted for the creation of protected areas. Clearly, conservation can also benefit people, but the fact that it may disadvantage them highlights the need for paying more attention to the nexus of conservation and human society.

Only by seeking to jointly maximize conservation and economic objectives is conservation likely to succeed. Win–win outcomes for people and nature are possible, and discovering their preconditions should be a focus of research.

Conservation will be a durable success only if people support conservation goals (i.e. broaden the concerns of conservation beyond biodiversity and also to pay attention to economic development, jobs, poverty, and environmental justice.

Our vision of conservation science differs from earlier framings of conservation biology in large part because we believe that nature can prosper so long as people see conservation as something that sustains and enriches their own lives. In summary, we are advocating conservation for people rather than from people.

Here are some components* from a response by Michael Soulé (you can download it here), founder of the Society for Conservation Biology and generally acknowledged father of the field.

New conservation promotes economic development, poverty alleviation, and corporate partnerships as surrogates or substitutes for endangered species listings, protected areas, and other mainstream conservation tools. Its proponents claim that helping economically disadvantaged people to achieve a higher standard of living will kindle their sympathy and affection for nature. Because its goal is to supplant the biological diversity–based model of traditional conservation with something entirely different, namely an economic growth–based or humanitarian movement, it does not deserve to be labeled conservation.

The key assertion of the new conservation is that affection for nature will grow in step with income growth. The problem is that evidence for this theory is lacking. In fact, the evidence points in the opposite direction, in part because increasing incomes affect growth in per capita resource consumption. We also know that the richer nations may protect local forests and other natural systems, but they do so at the expense of those ecosystems elsewhere in less affluent places.

Other nettlesome issues are also ignored, including

  • Which kinds of species will persist and which will not if the new economic-growth agenda replaces long-term protection in secure protected areas?
  • Is it ethical to convert the shrinking remnants of wild nature into “gardens” beautified with non-native species?
  • Will these garden-like reserves, designed to benefit human communities, also admit inconvenient, dangerous beasts such as lions, elephants, bears, jaguars, wolves, crocodiles, and sharks?

The globalization of intensive economic activity has accelerated the frenzied rush for energy and raw materials and is devouring the last remnants of the wild, largely to serve the expanding, affluent, consumer classes in industrialized and developing nations. At current rates of deforestation, dam construction, extraction of fossil fuels, land clearing, water withdrawal, and man-caused climate change, it is expected that the 2 major refuges for biological diversity on the globe—the wet, tropical forests of the Amazon, and Congo Basin—will be gone by the end of this century.  Is the sacrifice of so much natural productivity, beauty, and diversity prudent, even if some human communities and companies might be enriched? No. The worth of nature is beyond question and our obligation to minimize its gratuitous degradation is no less.

Much like the authors of the papers, I am accentuating the differences rather than focusing on the similarities (and there are many) between “classic” and “new” Coke.  Conservation!  Classic and new conservation.  Regardless, as I mentioned in a previous post, 98% of tall-grass prairie in North America is gone.  >75% of mixed-grass prairie is gone, and most of what remains is intensively grazed by cattle.  The grasslands that I stomped around in with the dogs last weekend are tiny postage stamps of native species in a landscape dominated by wheat, milo, and pasture grazed so low it was more dirt than not.  And even those little patches are disappearing at an alarming rate in many areas in response to increased demand for federally subsidized ethanol.  With this in mind, I ask myself:  Are we are now at the point that we think using tax-dollars to pay farmers to manage crop fields as wildlife habitat is conservation?  Would Kareiva and Marvier and Emma Marris and others consider this to be a win-win situation for wildlife and people?  And if, pragmatically speaking, it is the best we can do, should we be satisfied?  When is it okay to let the interests of wildlife trump those of people? Would it be okay to displace 1 person to save a 1000 species?  1000 people to save one?

I dunno.  If you don’t either, I encourage you to read the two papers above.  I also encourage you to keep in mind that this is not merely an academic debate – Peter Kareiva is the chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy.

*These are largely direct quotes, but I’ve slightly changed some wording and rearranged a few sentences to make the material more accessible for undergraduate students.   

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