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Is rewilding of modern species a good idea? The answer: sometimes

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Building off of my previous rant against the idea of pleistocene rewilding I would like to discuss the idea of rewilding modern species. Unlike pleistocene rewilding, which suggests modern descendants of ice age megafauna should be introduced to habitats where their ancestors roamed, modern rewilding involves reintroducing an extirpated species, or at least a closely related subspecies, into an ecosystem which it was known to live in recent times. Probably the greatest example of this would be the reintroduction of wolves to the American west. Since most  gray wolf populations were completely eradicated from the lower 48 a closely related subspecies of gray wolf was brought in from Canada to repopulate American parks such as Yellowstone.

Unlike pleistocene rewilding this effort should not upset the ecological balance of habitats these modern species are reintroduced to. These species have evolved in these ecosystems and the ecosystem relies on them for certain services. Continuing with my gray wolf example, in the absence of wolves prey species exploded in population. These increased populations began to destroy their habitats, literally eating themselves out of house and home as there was no predator efficient enough to keep their populations in check. Restoring wolves to these habitats has returned the natural balance. Prey populations have fallen to more natural, sustainable levels and the plant community has begun to rebound.

While I still contend that pleistocene rewilding is a terrible idea, modern rewilding can be beneficial. However, I do not recommend we place modern rewilding as the highest priority. Some areas should strive for this if it is necessary to restore the habitat and there are no greater conservation concerns upon which they should focus. For example, I do not believe India should focus so much of its time and resources on the rewilding of cheetahs when the protection of their tigers and rhinos from poaching should be their highest concern at this time.

Additional Readings:

The first wolf family in Denmark since centuries? » Rewilding Europe A new beginning. For wildlife. For us.

Project to ship cheetahs from Africa to India totally misconceived – Telegraph.

WII Plans Rs 260 Crore Project for Reintroducing Cheetah in India – The New Indian Express.

African cheetah sourced for reintroduction to India – Big Cat Rescue.

Cheetah reintroduction stirs up debate – The Times of India.

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Pleistocene Rewilding: Is it really a good idea?

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Recently a concept known as pleistocene rewilding has arisen within the conservation community. This idea is the cause of great controversy as it suggests we should introduce descendants of extinct pleistocene megafauna to ecosystems where their ancestors once roamed. This would mean releasing species such as lions (Panthera leo), tigers (Panthera tigris), and elephants (Loxodonta africana) into the Great Plains region of North America or bringing a species of rhino into Europe.

While restoring species to an ecosystem in which they, or at least their ancestors, evolved may seem like a good idea at first we must take a closer look at the implications of such an action. These species have been absent from these habitats for thousands of years, most since the end of the last ice age. These systems have continued to evolve without these species. In many places new species have arisen to fill the ecological void left by the extinction of these ancient species. Sure, there are examples of niches which have not been filled (for instance, no predator other than man has found a way to hunt the American pronghorn since the extinction of the American cheetah), but this does not mean we should intervene. More often than not introductions of species do not end well. I of course must cite the example of introduced species such as pythons and kudzu.

Some argue that it was the actions of ancient humans rather than natural selection which pushed these species into extinction. Whether this is true or not it does not justify the introduction of their modern descendants into ecosystems which have adapted to the lack of these pleistocene megafauna. Currently we have greater conservation issues at hand such as deforestation, poaching of rhinos, declining grassland birds, and deterioration of reefs to worry about something frivolous like pleistocene rewilding.

Additional readings:

Bringing wild rhinos into Europe proposal “red herring and won’t fly” – News – News – Voice of Russia UK, Voice of Russia – UK Edition.

Pleistocene Rewilding– in North America

Pleistocene Rewilding, Frankenstein Ecosystems, and an Alternative Conservation Agenda – Oliveira-Santos – 2010 – Conservation Biology – Wiley Online Library.

JSTOR: The American Naturalist, Vol. 168, No. 5 November 2006, pp. 660-681.

Rants from the Hill: Pleistocene rewilding — High Country News.

A Rebound for Some Wildlife in Europe – NYTimes.com

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A Rebound for Some Wildlife in Europe – NYTimes.com.

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Paying The Tab: Hunters Pay the Lion’s Share for Conservation

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Probably the biggest problem for wildlife conservation is funding. Without proper funding wildlife agencies, scientists, and land owners can not work towards better wildlife conservation. Yet somehow wildlife agencies still employ game rangers to prevent wildlife crimes, biologists still head out into the field to study species, and conservation minded land owners have still managed to better their lands for wild animals. So how was all of this paid for? The simple answer, hunters.

Yes I said it. Though the anti-hunting/ animal rights community would like to portray hunters as the villain, hunters are the real heroes. To make a pop culture reference think of Batman. Although painted as bad guys, hunters are the ones doing the most good for wildlife. When money is needed for conservation hunters have always been the first ones to step up to the plate and open their wallets.

There is no better example of this than right here in the U.S with the Pittman-Robertson Act which was originally proposed by a hunters. This act poses a tax on the manufacture of all hunting related equipment, a tax which is naturally added to the cost of items and gladly paid by hunters when we buy our equipment. The revenues from this tax go on to fund our state wildlife agencies in their efforts to protect our treasured wildlife. In fact, as can be read in the link attached to the end of this article, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources receives over 70% of its funding from Pittman-Robertson alone. On top of that, hunters go one leg further to support game agencies by purchasing hunting licenses and tags.

Aside from the Pittman Robertson Act the other landmark decision by hunters to protect wildlife was the creation of the duck stamp. This action has led to the creation of hundreds of wetlands, restoring critical habitat for waterfowl.

Lets take a trip outside the United States to observe this phenomena on other continents. Africa is the best example I can give on an international scale. Hunting brings big money to otherwise poor communities. Thanks to the dollars, euros, pounds, etc… brought to Africa by foreign hunters, as well as the money paid by local hunters, African wildlife has found a value to the local communities which in turn tolerate or even welcome wildlife in the areas around them now. Wildlife once meant property damage, crop raiding, livestock losses, and occasionally man-eating. With a thriving trophy hunting industry locals now see wildlife as jobs, schools, and a ready supply of red meat as these are often provided to the local people by the hunting outfitters. Aside from providing direct benefits to local peoples in return for their tolerance, the money from hunting also goes back directly to wildlife. Funding from hunters has allowed for better anti-poaching patrols which protect valuable and endangered species such as rhinos, elephant, and lions.

References:

Caro et al. Animal breeding systems and big game hunting: models and applications. Biological Conservation: 142 (2009) 909-929.

Frost and Bond. The CAMPFIRE program me in Zimbabwe: payments for wildlife services. Ecological Economics: 65 (2008) 776-787.

McGranahan. Identifying sustainability assessment factors for ecotourism and trophy hunting on private rangeland in Namibia. Journal of Sustainable Tourism: 19 (2011) 115-131.

Usongo and Nkanje. Participatory approaches towards forest conservation: the case of Lobéké National Park, South east Cameroon. International Journal of Sustainable Development and World Ecology: 11 (2004) 119-127.

Michigan DNR Thanks Hunters, Celebrates 75 Years of Conservation Funding Success with Pittman-Robertson Act Anniversary.

Hunter-Conservationists: The Driving Force Behind Wildlife Conservation

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This weeks topic may be a little controversial as I am about to take a firm stand on an issue which often divides wildlife lovers. On the one side we find the preservationists, those like John Muir and the Sierra Club, who believe wildlife and nature should be left alone. Then on the other side you find conservationists, like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and myself, who believe in a hands-on approach to wildlife management. This approach is the main method used by wildlife agencies around the world and involves the concept of sustainable use: this being ecotourism activities, the biggest of which is hunting/fishing.

The truth is, the original conservation movement was started by hunters. Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president of this great nation, was an avid hunter and naturalist. During his term as President he created a little over 50 wildlife refuges in America including Pelican Island in Florida and Tongass in Alaska (PBS). He was also a founding member of the Boone and Crockett Club as well as a member of the New York Zoological Society which is now known as the Wildlife Conservation Society.

However there is one other great American hero of conservation that may out shine even Roosevelt. Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling, was an avid conservationist, hunter, and political cartoonists (one of which is posted below this paragraph). In 1934 he was asked by Franklin D. Roosevelt, as an effort to stifle his criticism of FDR’s administration, to head the U.S. Biological Survey, which would one day become the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Ding). One of his biggest actions as such was the hosting of a massive meeting of conservationists, firearms manufacturers, and hunters. Out of this great meeting came conservation landmarks such as the duck stamp and the Pittman Robertson Act. These two actions are essentially self imposed taxes on hunters and hunting equipment set aside to pay for conservation efforts. These two pieces of legislation can very well take credit for the amazing restoration of North America’s wildlife and wildlife habitat.

Outside of  the U.S. we find this same phenomena of hunters being the root of conservation. No other place is this more evident than in Africa. Like North America hunters were originally the bad guys. By 1900 unrestricted hunting had already caused the extinction of two species: the blue buck, Hippotragus leucophæus, and the quagga, Equus quagga quagga. However, just like in the U.S. hunters were the first to realize the damage they were causing and changed their ways. Many hunters, ranchers and conservationists started converting land from agriculture to wildlife and worked to create national reserves such as the Kruger National Park. Now in Africa the mentality is “if it pays it stays”. While this may not be as altruistic as the North American version of conservation it is effective none the less.

Currently wildlife and hunting can bring large sums of money to otherwise poor areas as well as a constant flow of red meat. As can be seen in the picture below nothing goes to waste. This provides incentive for both land owners and local people to tolerate wild animals and the damage they can do to crops and property, as well as livestock predation from carnivores. In Sub-Saharan Africa the major trend for wildlife species has been increases in numbers. This is due in large part to the massive trophy hunting industry since as I stated before the trophy hunting industry provides monetary incentives to tolerate wildlife as well as providing funds to pay for anti-poaching efforts. However, as an alternative the country of Kenya closed to hunting in the mid ’70s and his since then seen drastic decreases in its wildlife populations. Probably the biggest contributor to this decline is rampant poaching and a lack of anti-poaching efforts.

It is thanks to conservation minded hunters that we all enjoy the amazing abundance of wildlife  which we have today. If not for them there would not have been enough funding or motivation to protect our treasured wildlife or to protect and restore habitat. This has been a very general overview of the topic however you can trust that over the next couple of weeks I will dive deeper into this subject.

References:

Ding Darling Society. http://www.dingdarlingsociety.org/who-is-j-n-ding-darling

PBS. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/general-article/tr-environment/

Introduction to wildlife conservation

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What is wildlife conservation? Wildlife conservation is the regulation of wild animals and plants in such a way as to provide for their continuance. Efforts are aimed at preventing the depletion of present populations and ensuring the continued existence of the habitats targeted species need to survive. Techniques involve establishment of sanctuaries and controls on hunting, use of land, importation of exotic species, pollution, and use of pesticides. (http://encyclopedia2.thefreedictionary.com/wildlife+conservation) A simpler definition of wildlife conservation is the management of species  through sustainable practices to ensure future generations can enjoy it as well.

Conservation is not to be confused with preservation. Preservation is the idea that humans should leave wildlife alone, sanctuaries should be created and humans should have no contact with the animals. Conservation uses direct involvement from humans through habitat restorations, refuges, hunting and photo safaris.

Some hot topics right now in the field of conservation are:

United States

  1. Key deer- Species of deer native to the Florida Keys. These tiny deer have been severely reduced in numbers. The latest estimates place the current population between 250-750 http://floridaenvironment.com/programs/fe00306.htm
  2. Scimitar-horned oryx, addax, and dama gazelle- These three species although native to western Africa are now found only on ranches in the U.S. primarily in Texas for the purpose of hunting. http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=7396832n

Central and South America

  1. Jaguar- Jaguar are very reclusive cats so determining exact numbers has been difficult. All biologists know at this point in time is that the populations are declining. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1469-7998.2011.00812.x/abstract Recently, Safari Club International Foundation (a conservation organization founded by hunters) completed a joint study with United for Conservation to better understand the jaguar population in Mexico. https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=162442073830229&set=a.154414717966298.39190.154332054641231&type=1&theater

Africa

  1. Rhino- Rhino are under tremendous pressure in Africa from poaching. Over 400 rhinos from South Africa were killed in 2011 to supply horns for use in traditional medicine on the Asian black market. As of today’s date poachers have already killed 160 in South Africa alone. http://www.stoprhinopoaching.com/statistics.aspx (The stats provided at this link are as of March 19th, current total as of April 5th are 160 rhinos)
  2. Lion- Due to increasingly fragmented habitat and revenge killings for preying on cattle lions have become a hot topic amongst conservation organizations. Studies are being conducted all across Africa to create sustainable plans for lion management. http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/273/1598/2119.full

Asia

  1. Tigers- Tigers face threats common to rhinos and lions. They are losing habitat at alarming rates and are poached due to their value in traditional chinese medicine. http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/eu_russia_saving_tigers/

These are just a sampling of the topics which will be covered on this blog. If there are any preferred topics or other suggestions feel free to leave comments.