Sunday, February 3, 2013

What Will They Say in 50 Years? By Moderator Anders Halverson

This morning, I received an email from someone who had attended a talk I gave recently. He asked: “Is there anything going on nowadays that you would consider comparable to the Green River poisoning? Is there anything that we are currently doing that is as stupid or outlandish or that will be considered insane 50 years from now?”

Good question.

First, for those of you who haven’t read that chapter of the book yet: In 1962 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the fish and game agencies of Wyoming and Utah poisoned all the fish in the Green River above Flaming Gorge (a watershed the size of Connecticut and Massachusetts combined). Their goal was to eliminate anything that might interfere with the fishery they planned to create by stocking (nonnative) rainbow trout. 

And let me emphasize that there are still people today who argue (quite convincingly) that the operation was neither stupid or insane, but a logical response to the dams that were being built on the river (see Wiley, 2008).

The white lines in the river are
rotenone, a fish poison that was
applied to the Green River in 1962
That said, clearly such an operation would never even make it onto the drawing board today. In fact, we have now spent more than $100 million trying to recover several of the same fishes that were poisoned out 50 years ago.

So is there anything we are currently doing in fisheries or natural resource management that will have people tearing their hair out in a few decades? Of course.

But one of the most striking things to me about the Green River incident is how absolutely noncontroversial it was when it occurred. When I began my research, I was surprised at how hard it was to find newspaper articles about the incident. After a lot of scrolling through the microfiche, I eventually found a few, but they were mostly puff pieces in the sports section. It took a long time for me to realize that most people in that era simply didn’t think in the same native/nonnative dualism that has become so prevalent today. To them, fishes were divided into the game fish and the trash fish. Neither did Americans seem to have the same skepticism about progress and our ability to engineer natural systems. It was commonly believed that scientists were able and duty-bound to accomplish these things.

That’s why it is so difficult to guess what they will be saying about us 50 or 100 years from now. I’m sure we are doing things that future generations will consider stupid, outlandish, or insane. But we’re all too wrapped up in our worldviews and preconceptions to know what those things may be.
Robert Miller (L) and Jerry Smith
(2nd from L) were some of the only
people who opposed the Green
River poisoning.

I have some ideas of course, at least in terms of concepts that seem ripe for rethinking. For example, the native/nonnative dualism that shapes so much thought in natural resource management today will surely have to be deemphasized if not thrown out. Climate change is about to show us how quickly ecosystems can change and organisms can move.

In addition, I think the incredible emphasis that we currently place on conservation of species will one day seem hopelessly simplistic. (The same thing goes for biodiversity since, despite the best intentions, it is almost always quantified in terms of species.) Though it seemed a relatively well defined concept through most of the twentieth century, the very  definition of “species” is once again generating some serious head-scratching in the biological community, just as it did for Darwin.

Finally, at risk of stating the obvious, let me declare that just because we're going to make mistakes is not an excuse for not taking action. Only a call for humility when we do.


Mark LaRoux said... about how we almost lost the black fotted ferret due to egos\politics.
The continued trapping of wolverines is a good one...just because someone sees it as the 'holy grail' of trappable animals is not a really good reason to still allow it.
Close to where I live, the pygmy sunfish...its one subdivision (spill) away from doom I guess. (just thought I'd throw in a fish for fun)
How to handle WNS issues with caves...decon issues, etc. Still not sure if humans were vector to start.
A good example of species issue: night hunting of coyotes killed around 10 percent of all non-captive red save cats....CATS? But, the hybrids from mated red wolf/coyotes are all killed anyway...any chance there were historic residual red wolf genes in any of the coyotes anyway? Anybody test this? Original reds were picked from phenotype anyway, right? Meanwhile, we legally shoot 'large' coyotes in the south all the time...we even have contests. Wide rostrums, deep chests, 45+ pounds and nobody tests them either? Odd.

Anders said...

Thanks Mark,
All great examples. The complexity of the red wolf situation is especially fascinating to me.
I had no idea wolverine trapping was still legal. I'm stunned.

Anonymous said...

This echos in my head today as I work on a project for the US Fish and Wildilfe Service with much uncertainty... "what will they say in 50 years?" Thank you Anders, for your excellent posts. Your synthesis of complex management issues is enlightening and causing some of us to pause. And really think.

Anders said...

And thanks to all of you for your comments. I'm looking forward to more discussions when I am at the National Conservation Training Center on February 27 for a webinar and talk.