Living Things, nature, People vs. Nature

To Conserve Or Not To Conserve

That is the question


I spent the holidays hanging out with family, watching a lot of television, and catching up on some reading. I’ve been trying to make a dent in my non-fiction list lately, and I found myself reading books on topics ranging from conservation to the history of humankind. So, you know…. light reading. Don’t worry; I interspersed this selection with plenty of beach read-style fiction. Side note – does anyone know why some books are referred to as beach reads? I read those types of books all year long. After a long day, my brain just wants to follow along as a woman struggles to open a cupcake shop in a new town. 

Any who, I’ve made a vow to try to catch up on some non-fiction, and I am slowly succeeding. I finished reading The Reindeer Chronicles, which is a book that I would recommend to anyone that needs to hear some positive conservation news, and I started reading Sapiens. I’m only about a third of the way through the book, and I have feelings. I’ll just say that I can tell it wasn’t written by someone from the natural sciences, and it’s been interesting hearing a different person’s opinion. Regardless of all that, something about reading the two books back-to-back, one focused on individuals rescuing places at the brink and another charting the human species’ march through the world, made me start thinking again about how we as humans are trying to restore places that we have been changing for thousands of years. 

This is not me. This is definitely an instagram-friendly pose that would hurt your neck after five minutes. Photo by Negative Space on Pexels.com

Conservation is hard. There are so many considerations. Aside from the obvious human-centric ones like effects on the economy and local communities, there are also questions about the most appropriate method of conservation. 

Wolves are one of the MANY large predators that have been hunted to near extinction. Photo by Shelby Waltz on Pexels.com

Let’s look at a hypothetical example; we’ll call it Species A. Species A is a large predator that was hunted nearly to extinction in the 20th century. There are less than 50 individuals left (when there were once thousands) in a territory that is a tenth of the size of its historical range. How do we solve this problem?

We could make it illegal to hunt the species, but that leads to a lot of follow-up questions. Can we enforce it? Let’s say that there are enough rangers to monitor potential illegal activity. Ok, how does the local community feel about protecting Species A? Are they angry? Do they support the measure? Maybe it’s a mix of both. How do you handle those that are opposed? Do you understand their opposition? Can you address it through education or regulations that would mitigate their concerns? Let’s say that’s also possible. Now, we’ve handled the human component. Is that it? We’re done?

Not quite. Let’s look at Species A itself. There are so many questions that must be answered to be able to conserve this species. Are individuals breeding well? Is there sufficient genetic diversity? It’s one thing to protect a species, but it needs to breed to save it from extinction. If a species is difficult to breed – either in the wild or in captivity – or there is low genetic diversity leading to concerns of inbreeding, then a breeding program may need to be established. How do we handle that?  What’s the cost associated with it?

The Florida panther’s genetic diversity was so low that mountain lions from Texas had to be brought in for increased diversity. Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

There are still more questions before we can help Species A. Let’s talk about the habitat itself. Like many large predators, Species A needs a lot of area to roam and find food. Now we need to ask questions about the size and connectivity of available habitat. This task can also be difficult. Do we create one, giant conservation area where human activity is limited? How large does it need to be to sustain the population? Could we create a lot of smaller areas instead? How will we ensure that individuals can safely travel between these areas to prevent genetic isolation and inbreeding? 

Can you imagine an elephant roaming the fields of Oklahoma? Photo by Aenic Visuals on Pexels.com

Reading Sapiens so soon after The Reindeer Chronicles reminded me of a few other questions as well. They aren’t new questions. Scientists and conservation managers have been asking them for a while. What is our goal with conserving this species? Are we trying to simply protect a species or habitat, because it’s the right thing to do? Or are we trying to improve ecosystem function? Let’s say our goal is to restore a habitat and rejuvenate an ecosystem service. What restoration point are we trying to hit? Maybe the goal is for the habitat to function as it did pre-industrialization (aka before the late 1800’s). Maybe the goal is to go even farther back. There are a few people that think we need mammoths and sabre-tooth tigers to roam North America again. No, this isn’t Jurassic Park. Those people generally suggest bringing elephants and lions to North America instead. Of course, that approach raises multiple concerns and brings in a whole new set of questions regarding introduced species that could become invasive.

My goal with this post isn’t to make conservation seem impossible. It’s not. Rather, I want to demonstrate the science of conservation. Because it is a science – one that requires collaboration across fields ranging from economists to biologists and everything in between. However, responsible conservation is necessary to protect threatened ecosystems and also, lest we forget, to sustain the human species.

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