Is Abundant Human Population Compatible with Abundant Wildlife Populations?

Published on May 7th, 2014

As an undergraduate majoring in fisheries and wildlife management, I learned numerous wildlife management techniques, tools and technologies.

Later, as a fisheries technician working for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, I tagged hundreds of thousands of juvenile Pacific salmon with state-of-the-art coded microwires. We injected these 1 millimeter-long stainless steel wires – each with a unique binary code etched on it – into the snouts of coho salmon fingerlings using a sophisticated, high-tech apparatus that cost $20,000 and that I protected at all cost from curious and ever-hungry grizzly bears snooping around our remote wilderness camps.

Tagging a salmonid by injecting a tag into its snout.

Later still, I worked as a consultant to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at 50 National Wildlife Refuges around the United States. I helped the Service develop long-term plans for managing habitats, wildlife populations and public use. Invariably, given the pervasive reality of landscapes and ecosystems already heavily modified by human actions, these wildlife sanctuaries relied on intensive methods to restore, manage and modify habitats and the best technology they could develop or afford to inventory wildlife and assist endangered species recovery.

In the latter half of the 20th century, all of these endeavors allowed for the conservation and even recovery of many species of wildlife even in the face of rampant population growth, habitat destruction and pervasive pollution. Does this mean that human overpopulation is compatible with abundant and diverse wildlife after all?

Well, no.

First of all, in spite of my profession’s noteworthy successes, the number of species of wild flora and fauna threatened with extinction continues to increase all around the country and particularly in California.

Second, defining success in conserving biodiversity as merely preventing other species from vanishing forever is setting the bar very low. Many wildlife populations, while not teetering on the brink of extinction, are in trouble and greatly reduced from historic levels.

Third, intensive wildlife management using high tech is expensive. It is possible only in an affluent, motivated society that both values and can afford wildlife conservation.

In other words, intensive, high-tech wildlife management may not be sustainable, given worrying trends with nonrenewable resource depletion, peak oil, climate change, economic stagnation, and so forth.

For example, most of the national wildlife refuges I worked at this past decade could no longer afford to implement basic wildlife and habitat management practices because of budget cuts.

Dunlins (a type of migratory shorebird) foraging for tasty worms, insects and snails in a flooded rice field.

We should remember all this when considering an innovative new program to assist migrating shorebirds in California’s Central Valley, once one of America’s premier waterfowl and shorebird wetland habitats. Now 95% of those wetlands are gone – converted to crops and orchards – and migratory birds have far fewer of the rest stops they urgently need for their long and exhausting journeys north and south.

The program, called BirdReturns, financed by The Nature Conservancy and supported by citizen scientists using a smartphone app developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, pays rice farmers to leave their fields flooded with irrigation water – creating temporary “pop up” wetlands. These can be a huge help to migratory birds by providing rest and food en route to summer breeding grounds Up North.

In this first year, according to The New York Times, 10,000 acres owned by 40 farmers were flooded for four to eight weeks, averaging 200-250 acres each. BirdReturns hopes to expand this initial success within the Central Valley and beyond.

Nationally and globally, agriculture has enormously negative and far-reaching impacts on native habitats and wildlife, and innovations like these, which allow some wildlife to coexist with agriculture with minimal or no reduction of food yields, are encouraging.

Yet these innovative approaches – part of a movement dubbed “reconciliation ecology,” in which human-dominated ecosystems are managed to boost biodiversity – do not obviate the need to stabilize our population ASAP and to reduce our per capita ecological footprint. Techno-fixes and innovative management have a very important role to play in mitigating human impacts on wildlife and fisheries, but they are not a silver bullet rescuing Earth’s biodiversity from perpetual population growth.

They will not, in other words, allow us to have our cake and devour it too, though they will let us savor the flavor a bit more.

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