The Animals that Created Conservation

Peo­ple, they say, are the ones who save wild places. Bears don’t vote, after all. But wild crit­ters are still at the cen­ter of con­ser­va­tion bat­tles, and every bat­tle needs an icon. Here are some of the wild crea­tures that have found them­selves on conservation’s main stage.

finchThe Finch
“The most curi­ous fact is the per­fect gra­da­tion in the size of the beaks in the dif­fer­ent species of Geospiza, from one as large as that of a hawfinch to that of a chaffinch, wrote a young nat­u­ral­ist on an island in the east­ern Pacif­ic. The birds, of course, were finch­es, with slight­ly dif­fer­ent beaks for pry­ing open slight­ly dif­fer­ent food sources. The islands were the Gala­pa­gos, and the nat­u­ral­ist was a young man named Charles Dar­win. The finch­es inspired the con­cepts of evo­lu­tion and nat­ur­al selec­tion, and the 1959 pub­li­ca­tion of the Ori­gin of the Species rearranged our entire world view. Darwin’s finch­es changed the mean­ing of being human—from being sep­a­rate and above the nat­ur­al world to being a part of it that’s con­stant­ly being remade.

egretThe Egret
Dain­ty, ethe­r­i­al, and val­ued for feath­ers that adorned the hats of high soci­ety gath­er­ings at the turn of the 20th cen­tu­ry, egrets were hunt­ed until they were at risk. To pro­tect them, Har­ri­et Hemen­way and Mina Hall formed a group called the Audubon Soci­ety. When one of their emis­saries asked Pres­i­dent Ted­dy Roo­sevelt to pro­tect Pel­i­can Island in Flori­da in 1903, Roo­sevelt, as the sto­ry goes, turned to an aide and asked if any law pre­vent­ed him from declar­ing the island a refuge. When the aide shook his head, Roo­sevelt sim­ply respond­ed, “Then I so declare it.” The Nation­al Wildlife Refuge sys­tem was born. Fif­teen years lat­er, Pres­i­dent Wil­son signed the Migra­to­ry Bird Treaty Act, to this day one of the strongest laws pro­tect­ing birds.

North American BisonThe Bison
Bison used to roam the great plains in inde­scrib­able num­bers. Upwards of 60 mil­lion ranged from the edge of Alas­ka to Mex­i­co and from the Rock­ies to the east­ern states. But the seem­ing­ly inex­haustible bison were slaugh­tered, along with the Indige­nous pop­u­la­tions that depend­ed on them, in the west­ward expan­sion of the late 1800s. We pulled back from the brink of total extinc­tion, but just bare­ly: only 300 bison remained in the U.S. in 1900. Today there are rough­ly 360,000 wild buf­fa­lo in the Dako­tas, Yel­low­stone, Mon­tana and Utah, but they’re at risk from lim­it­ed genet­ic diver­si­ty. The decline of the buf­fa­lo was the first wake-up call about the Tragedy of the Com­mons; but it wouldn’t be the last.

atlantic codThe Atlantic Cod
Cod was like gold—except it tastes bet­ter when bat­tered and fried. Lit­er­al wars have been fought over cod fish­ing grounds. Colo­nial Amer­i­ca relied on the sea’s boun­ty of cod to both feed and finance the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion. Like the bison, cod was once so abun­dant nobody could imag­ine the fish­ery fail­ing, but it did. Over­fish­ing and drag-trawls that dam­aged the seafloor cod depend­ed on led to a cycle of decline. Pres­sured to make a liv­ing as stocks fell, New Eng­land and Cana­di­an fish­er­men fished even hard­er. Radar and sonar-equipped trawlers found cod in deep­er waters—but also increased bycatch of non­com­mer­cial fish, which deplet­ed the cod’s food source. By the 1980s, the fish­ery was in deep trou­ble, and like north­west­ern log­ging towns, with the cod went the liveli­hood of many. By the time any­one act­ed, it was too late. A two-year cod mora­to­ri­um in 1992 was imposed on the Grand Banks to see if the cod pop­u­la­tion would recov­er. The ban is still in place today. As with the bison, we learned from our mis­takes. The Marine Stew­ard­ship Coun­cil was found­ed in 1997 to set stan­dards for sus­tain­able fish­ing lev­els for species around the globe. Cal­i­for­nia and Ore­gon have estab­lished marine reserves: fish­ing-free zones where fish can breed.

spotted owlThe Spot­ted Owl
To any­one who lived in Ore­gon or Wash­ing­ton at the time, the 1980s and 90s was the era of “Spot­ted Owl Wars,” a long strug­gle between log­ging inter­ests and con­ser­va­tion in the Pacif­ic Northwest’s ancient forests. The endan­gered Spot­ted Owl became a sym­bol on both sides. To con­ser­va­tion­ists, it was the endan­gered icon of a van­ish­ing ecosys­tem. To res­i­dents of tim­ber-depen­dent towns, it was an obscure bird threat­en­ing their liveli­hood. Years of leg­isla­tive and court bat­tles lat­er, the out­come of this seem­ing­ly zero-sum game was that every­one lost. Jobs and mills dis­ap­peared from tim­ber towns, but from mech­a­niza­tion and the eco­nom­ic shift to tech­nol­o­gy, not from envi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion. Two decades lat­er, spot­ted owl pop­u­la­tions are still in decline, and forests remain frag­ment­ed and slow to recover.

gray wolvesThe Gray Wolf
The Gray Wolf rivals the spot­ted owl for its polar­iz­ing effect: to some it’s a scary preda­tor. To oth­ers, it’s a nat­ur­al part of the Amer­i­can eco­log­i­cal fab­ric that was wrong­ly vil­i­fied. When wolves were re-intro­duced to Yel­low­stone in the 1990s, the ecosys­tem of our first nation­al park rebound­ed. The wolves unleashed an eco­log­i­cal rip­ple effect: wolves kept elk herds on the move, which allowed stream banks to heal, which helped trout pop­u­la­tions. Coy­otes gave up ter­ri­to­ry and squir­rel pop­u­la­tions rebound­ed, which meant more seeds were dis­trib­uted, so forests recov­ered faster from fires. An adapt­able, ver­sa­tile species that avoids humans, wolves now thrive in Mon­tana, Ida­ho, Wash­ing­ton and North­ern Cal­i­for­nia, with rel­a­tive­ly few con­flicts with peo­ple. The wolf is a sym­bol that we can live with preda­tors after all.

PikaThe Next One: The Pika
The next sym­bol for a major con­ser­va­tion issue may well be an adorable, small and reclu­sive rel­a­tive of the rab­bit, the Pika. A year-round inhab­i­tant of high moun­tains, the Pika pop­u­la­tion is declin­ing because of cli­mate change—and since they live in the high peaks, there’s nowhere fur­ther up for them to go.

people Mather PointThe Oth­er Next One: The Human
It’s easy for those of us that seek out wild places at every oppor­tu­ni­ty to assume that con­ser­va­tion is about wolves, fish, owls and forests. But the next poster ani­mal for con­ser­va­tion is human beings. As cli­mate change cre­ates severe storms and hot­ter sum­mers, the impacts of flood­ing, dis­place­ment, dis­ease, asth­ma and car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease make peo­ple, not pel­i­cans or pen­guins, the species that we’ll want to pro­tect. We have met the ally, and it is us.