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.
“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.
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.
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.
The 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.
The 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.
The 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.
The 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.
The 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.