Saturday, October 06, 2007

Single-Species Management

The picture above was taken of a mountain lion kill in Arizona. I’m sure your first thought was that the puma was killed by a recreational hunter, but the truth is uglier than that. This lion was killed by an employee of the Arizona Game and Fish Department. No, the cougar had not attacked a human. Nor had it taken someone’s livestock. The cardinal sin that cost this lion his life was the death of a bighorn sheep. You see, the herd of bighorn sheep in Arizona’s US Fish and Wildlife Service’s KOFA Wildlife Refuge has been declining, and the AGFD is blaming the decline of the herd on the lions, even though there is no science to support their claims and KOFA is within Federal jurisdiction. (In fact, the lion that was killed was collared to provide some science that would correlate or disprove the lion’s impact; and the AGFD killed the lion only three months after the collar was put in place. It would appear AGFD didn’t want any science…). The loss of that one bighorn (1 out of 390) was enough to cause wildlife managers to kill one of the only five mountain lions that live in KOFA and one that had been collared. This is the result of an ugly, undocumented philosophy that too often infects primarily state wildlife agencies called “single-species management”. It manifests itself in the death or elimination of the species that has fallen out of or never had political favor.

One would think that we had learned from the predator exterminations of the late eighteen and early nineteen hundreds how damaging to the ecosystem such an approach is. It was these exterminations that were the first practice of this philosophy, and its name indeed holds two edges of a very cutting sword. It is practiced by killing off a certain target species usually for the benefit of another species, the latter which may take the form of a proxy (such as bighorn sheep) but which is, in reality, man.

If you want to discover whether your state agencies are practicing single-species management, take a look at what wildlife they are protecting and exterminating and what science there is behind it. A good balanced wildlife management program may perform an act like reintroduction of a particular endangered or threatened species but will also have in it elements that take into account expected predation. A poorly run or planned program will not, will act with little or no scientific basis, and will inevitably result in some agency taking action against the offending species. This will be especially true when the program is politically popular either with powerful individuals within state governments or hunting lobbies that serve only short-sighted or self-serving goals (and not all of them do). A good sign that an agency is practicing single-species management, or variants thereof, will be when it cannot establish under outside scrutiny a good scientific basis for its actions. When any agency is not examining the ecosystem as a whole, except during scientific study when research goals may be narrower than that, what are we paying these professionals for? Is it to become the personal hunting guides or range managers of politicians who have no impulse to protect the public good? Is it to make the sole purpose of state wildlife agencies a provider for recreational hunting to fatten the pockets of local businessmen who will pay back what they earn in votes? One would think so. Somewhere, someway, the idea that wildlife and wilderness are essential resources for the whole society has been lost, and it has been the states more than the Federal government whose apathy and arrogance has made it so.

This not only appears to be the case for Arizona, but it holds true for Texas as well. At a Texas Parks and Wildlife sponsored mountain lion conference many years ago, us attendees were asked to help define the goals of the conference in an effort to make us all stakeholders and help us work together. I introduced a statement declaring that the “goal of the conference was to ensure the welfare of the mountain lion came first”. Texas Parks and Wildlife threw out that statement without comment. I knew instantly then that we were playing a political game, and those who were there cared more about their own agendas than they did about what happened to the mountain lion in Texas. Nothing has changed here since. Texas apparently doesn’t even track mountain lion mortality rates anymore, as feeble as that effort was to provide some kind of population data ten years ago. If they do, they don’t compile it because they’ve been unable to satisfy my requests for it within the last year.

People must become aware of how their own survival and quality of life depend on the health of the entire ecosystem around them. That especially includes the animals we call predators, which we are always too eager to kill whether it’s to calm our own fears or make life for us convenient and illusory safe. But such a reversal personal attitudes and abdication of personal responsibility is not likely to happen anytime soon. There are too many players entrenched in state governments who lose too much if things were to change, and too many people who feel like what happens to the mountain lion, or the outdoors itself, doesn’t affect them. It may take the lessons of global warming to teach them anything different, and it may be a lesson we learn as we take our dying breaths.

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