Skunks, Sea Lions, Moose, Mice and Us

I paid a fair amount of attention to skunks during childhood vacations on the Rhode Island shore where my folks built a small cottage just before I was born.  The area had been mostly pasture until the 1920’s and by the ‘40s it was reverting to early scrub crisscrossed with stone walls. Most of the cottages were built on piers and the combination of stone walls, scrub habitat and cottage crawl spaces was perfect skunk habitat. The small lawn around each one often showed evidence of nocturnal skunk work as the animals dug for grubs, earthworms  and other mustelid fare.

 

Skunks lent an air of high adventure to any nighttime foray.   A flashlight was a must – its beam sweeping side to side in search of black and white stripes.  Once, when an exceptionally long afternoon Monopoly game at a friend’s house was followed by a flashlightless walk home after dark, a too-close-for-comfort encounter remains burned in my memory.  But years later when my then-widowed mother spent summers in the cottage alone, skunks provided considerable peace of mind. “Need to keep my guard dogs happy.” she’d explain as she tossed out food scraps in the evenings when I was visiting.

 

Over the past several decades things have changed.  Located, as it is, halfway between New York and Boston the place has attracted urban big money and nearly all the cellarless small cottages built up on piers so plumbing could be drained from beneath each fall have been replaced by substantial “summer homes”.   And to be honest, we’ve contributed to the trend – disassembling the original cottage and reusing as much of it as we could while building a year round house large enough to accommodate our children and grandchildren for lovely family vacations together.  But the skunks are gone.

 

It wasn’t intended.  We didn’t mean to make my mother’s guard dogs homeless.  But now they exist only in the realm of family lore. Meanwhile our neighborhood lawns are awash in chemical grubicides.  

 

Nowadays we spend part of each year on the west coast where sea lions have been in the news.  They’re members of a select group of non-human species with a high brain to body size ratio – joining elephants and dolphins and bypassing our primate relatives –  chimpanzees, monkeys and gorillas. They’ve been shown to solve IQ tests that many humans have trouble passing.  A captive California sea lion studied by the Long Marine Lab at the University of California, Santa Cruz could use basic logic (If A=B and B=C then A=C).  In rankings of zoo animals’ popularity sea lions rank just behind llamas and ahead of rhinoceroses .  One poll respondent said “Sea lions are cute, friendly, playful, happy and loving sea creatures.”   

But their populations are fragile.  As numbers approached endangered species levels in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s the US congress passed the Marine Mammal Population Protection Act in 1972.  That law according to the US Fish and Wildlife service, prohibits, with certain exceptions, the “take of marine mammals in U.S. waters and by U.S. citizens on the high seas…”    Why, then, is the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife now killing them?  It’s a long story.

 

In the 1920’s the US Congress appropriated funds for the Army Corps of Engineers to examine ways the Columbia River might be developed to benefit flood control, navigation, irrigation and electricity – an action which had been advocated over a decade earlier by President Theodore Roosevelt’s Inland Waterways Commission.   In 1932 the Corps submitted their “308 report” whose recommendations found their way into then candidate Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s campaign promises and reached their denouement with FDR’s speech dedicating the completed Bonneville Dam on September 28, 1937.  Consideration of ways to mitigate the dam’s impact on salmon migration was begun only after construction was well underway. Fish ladders and bypasses were thus retrofitted and subsequent improvements in the fish bypass system have resulted in gradual recovery of salmon runs after the dramatic decline of stocks caused by interrupting the river’s free flow.    But here’s the thing:  before keying in on these bypass routes many endangered salmon now congregate in the area just below the dam.

 

Like humans, sea lions have the capacity for culture – defined by some as the accumulation of  knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends on the ability to learn and then transmit knowledge to others and then to succeeding generations.  They share another human trait as well which makes the Oregon Fish and Wildlife service’s step towards specicide more understandable. Like Homo sapiens,  Zalophus californianus relishes salmon.  Eventually, a few sea lions venturing upstream in the Columbia discovered the salmon smorgasbord below the dam and, intelligent and generous creatures which they seem to be, spread the word among other members of their tribe:  “There’s an easy feast to be had just a short swim up the Columbia.”

 

It is no small irony that the president who started the ball rolling towards this dilemma was the same one who established the US Forest Service, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, The National Wildlife Refuge System, doubled the number of sites within the National Park system and is considered by many to be the “conservation president”.   And it is even a less small irony, it seems to me, that the same creature which built the dam to improve its quality of life is now planning to kill off another creature (whose existence it had also once threatened) because it is taking advantage of a situation the first creature has created!    

 

In spite of our good intentions we certainly have a way of muddling things up.  In the 1950’s scientists discovered that the blood of horseshoe crabs contained properties that can very efficiently detect bacterial contamination of biological preparations like vaccines.  Horseshoe crab populations, already under pressure as a source of bait in crab and lobster pots, fell dramatically as their blood was harvested for this purpose. Then birders noticed that the red knot – a shorebird famous for performing one of the longest migrations known – was in serious decline.  Why? It turns out that a series of critical refueling stations along the route make it possible for these five ounce feathered fluffballs to fly from the arctic to the antarctic and back every year.

One of the critical refuelling stops? – the Chesapeake Bay horseshoe breeding grounds.   For millennia the ancient crustaceans have been depositing billions of high energy eggs on the bay’s mudflats and red knot migration has evolved to correspond exactly with the blessed events.  Better detection of human infection, fewer horseshoe crab eggs, more malnourished red knots arriving on arctic breeding grounds, fewer knot eggs, fewer knots.

 

Of course, sometimes our species’ behavior unwittingly has actually boosted wildlife populations.  Our eating habits have been very beneficial for Mus musculus, North America’s native house mouse.  The mice have returned the favor and enhanced our population a bit by becoming a critical part of many successful medical research projects.  We’ve also given quite a boost to Periplaneta americana, AKA the American cockroach !

 

Sometimes our relationship with other species gets really complicated. Since the 1940’s Lake Superior’s Isle Royale National Park  has been home to a population of moose and some wolves. Over the years, the moose population has oscillated between 2300 and 700 and the wolf population between  50 animals and 12 – the balance between predator and prey keeping the herbivores from destroying their finite food supply and providing a living laboratory for a variety of ecological studies reported in hundreds of papers in scientific journals. This was how “nature” was supposed to work.  Recently, however, at the nadir of one of the wolf population oscillations, a confluence of events – accidents, illnesses, inbreeding – has brought the wolf population down to two – a nine year old male and his seven year old daughter/half-sister – both now geriatric animals.  What’s to be done? The response on the part of biologists, National Park Officials, and The Ecological Research Institute – after considerable thought – has been to capture wolves from elsewhere and replenish the Isle Royale population. So much for keeping National Parks “natural”.

 

There is a longstanding conversation about whether or not we humans are a part of or separate from “nature ”.   Most modern religions and many political conservatives hold the view that man and nature are separate. The idea spans millennia from the Old Testament’s charge that man “subdue” the earth  “and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth” to  modern advice like that in Forbes magazine that we should  “…… give a clear mandate to leaders who celebrate man’s exceptionalism, understanding that the incidental problems created as we harness technology to bend nature to our will can be solved using more technology.”   In contrast, many of today’s environmentalists hold to the view, summarized by one-time White House Press Secretary and journalist Bill Moyers that  “We need a powerful new story that we are a part of nature and not separate from it.”

 

Whether you consider man a part of nature or separate from it, whether we’re inadvertently making skunks homeless or advertently rebalancing a wilderness predator/prey ratio;  it’s pretty clear that we are an integral part of earth’s ecosystem. It is also clear that as our numbers increase geometrically, our impact on that ecosystem becomes disproportionately large.  Is this dominion, or, like a wolfless population on Isle Royale are we now in danger of despoiling our habitat, threatening our quality of life and even risking our own demise?

 

Fortunately, like sea lions and elephants, we are relatively intelligent. And, like those crows and parrots Jennifer Ackerman writes about in The Genius of Birds, , we are problem solvers.  So what’s to be done? Perhaps a place to start is revisiting the National Environmental Protection Act of 1970.  That Federal Statute requires that certain federal and non-federal projects require an analysis of their environmental impact. That may be a start, but the act has no approval or disapproval capacity nor does it establish a body to make such determinations.   It merely says the information needs to be collected and considered. And there seems to be a great deal of controversy about where the line is drawn defining which actions require an EIS and which do not.  While it would be quite a radical departure from the status quo and something not at all likely to happen in our current political climate, perhaps it is worth considering an agency more like the Food and Drug Administration which would either approve or disapprove projects of  large enough scope based on the project’s environmental pros and cons.

 

There would be lots of details to work out.  How would projects requiring approval be defined?  How would enforcement occur? Would there be an iterative process to identify the types of projects which should have fallen under the jurisdiction of the agency but did not yet subsequently had important unexpected environmental impacts (like horseshoe crab phlebotomies).  Imperfect lines would surely have to be drawn., No matter what, I’m afraid,  such an agency could never go fishing with a project net fine enough to prevent a project that would result in a homeless skunk .

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Going….going……… gone?

 

You’d think an apocalypse would rate more than a single appearance in the news cycle but the subject briefly came and went in the magazine section of the New York Times: “The Insect Apocalypse is Here”.  In it staff writer Brooke Jarvis reports on a growing number of recent studies documenting a dramatic decline in insects.   And then it struck me. Once upon a time a drive in the country would leave our car windshield with a bad case of bug juice acne.  In fact it wasn’t unusual to hear an occasional “splat” when a particularly juicy airborne arthropod crossed the road at the wrong time.  When was the last time that happened?

 

Apparently it was this kind of casual observation that piqued the curiosity of some members of a club of bug watchers* in Krefeld, Germany whose unique techniques and compulsive archiving had them systematically measuring the mass of insects in German nature preserves since 1989. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0185809 Using standardized collection methods they were able to document an 80 percent decline in insect mass over 29 years. This quantitative analysis was entirely consistent with their casual observation that in 1989 a liter bottle was needed to hold the insects they collected at the site, while the most recent samplings required only a half liter bottle.  It also rang true for other observers who realized that now they ingested fewer bugs than they did several decades ago during bike rides through the Danish countryside.

 

The recognition of a tremendous decline in insect biomass puts into important context scores of previous carefully documented observations of the decline and extinction of  individual species and amplifies the significance of each. Instead of a large and growing number of soloists each singing their own woeful ballad we now have a huge orchestra and chorus singing and playing a single massive tragic symphony in a minor key.

 

The NYTimes magazine article strikes me as even more consequential than Rachel Carlson’s conservation milestone, Silent Spring.  Carlson called attention to the disappearance of iconic species at the top of the food chain – peregrine falcons,  eagles, ospreys – while the findings of the Krefeld group relate to species close to the bottom. The disappearance of birds of prey is an aesthetic tragedy.  Destruction of the opportunity of ever observing a falcon’s stoop or a fish hawk’s plunge is surely as great a loss for nature-lovers as destruction of Van Gogh’s Starry Night would be for aesthetes.  And the cultural damage from the loss of iconic species goes further – eroding the evocative choices of names for athletic teams (think Philadelphia Eagles), automobile brands (think Ford Falcon) and even military weapons (think the Marine helicopter V-22 Osprey).

 

But insects?  Hardly iconic, though they do grace the names of a few athletic teams (think Charlotte’s Hornets).  Unlike raptors, however, insects are a critical element in the earth’s entire ecosystem – pollinators of a great many of the plants that feed the herbivores (as well as us humans) and a major direct food source for legions of reptiles, amphibians, birds and freshwater fish.  

 

If the Krefeld study turns out to be the tip of an arthropodal iceberg –  if insect biomass worldwide is dramatically dwindling – three questions loom.  What is causing it? Does it matter? And, if it matters, what should we do about it?

 

Possible answers are already being tossed about to the first question:  loss of habitat to agricultural monocultures, widespread pesticide use, changing climate, a toxic mix of a variety of pollutants, some combination of all of the above.  Answers to the second question are no doubt divided for a variety of reasons. Among the “noes”: “Bugs are a nuisance – the fewer the better.” “I couldn’t care less – there are more important things, like my 401K, to worry about.” “I’m sure human ingenuity will find a way to replace any important function they are performing, if there are any.”  

 

Among the “yesses”: “I’m an alfalfa farmer and my income depends on pollinating insects.”  “No birds, no bats, no frogs or toads – life is going to be all plastic toys and video games.”  “OMG, of course it matters!! If crop and forage pollination depends on insects, what is going to happen to us??”

 

Once conventional wisdom finally reaches the conclusion that it matters, what next?  By then, there may well be more clarity about causation. But my money is on multiple whammies.

 

If I’m right and the decline is the result of climate change, widespread insecticide use, a multi-pollutant stew and habitat destruction from monocultural agriculture we are certainly between rocks and hard places or, if one prefers a more literary metaphor, we are faced with the choice of boiling, baking or ficasseeing our children before consuming them.  In fact, it is almost as hard to imagine sustaining our present life in a world with less land devoted to agriculture, free of pesticides and without massive fossil fuel consumption as it is to think of the absence of insects and all of the subsequent downstream effects.

 

One response to this Swiftian dilemma is acceptance of our fate.   This problem, like our individual mortality is unsolvable. Therefore make the best of the present moment.  

 

Another is acceptance’s close cousin, denial.  Perhaps even more tranquilizing than acceptance, with an identical outcome.  But if neither of those choices is appealing, where to start?

 

First don’t hunt for a silver bullet.  We got where we are as a result of uncountable small steps by many many people over many decades. Backtracking is going to be the same. And there is no shortage of where to start.  Decline bags when purchasing small items, reduce or end your use of garden pesticides, walk or bike on short trips instead of driving, work to elect enlightened representatives, join another environmental organization, set an example, talk it up etc. etc. and so forth. Meanwhile realize that  it is impossible to live one’s life in modern day America without contributing to the headlong rush to destruction in many ways, but by keeping the problem foremost in our minds and taking every opportunity to make one more tolerable favorable action after another we will end up taking two steps backwards – unwinding the problems we’ve caused – for every one we take on our present path towards an apocalypse which may well include a lot more than insects.

 

Given the importance of the Krefeld study, other confirmatory reports are certain to appear soon and capture a spot in the news cycle.   When that happens – and perhaps even before – we can expect professional pushback and disinformation from some predictable corporate players.,  Pesticide manufacturers, crop dusters, agribusiness, fossil fuel extractors, shippers and refiners and other deep pocketed likely suspects are no doubt already hard at work plotting their response.  And there surely will be a segment of the population ready to amplify it.

 

Recently at a neighborhood association discussion about doing away with two cycle gasoline powered leaf-blowers one community member asked.  “What on earth…… What on earth are we going to use to get rid of all those leaves? ” Hmmmm. Somehow only a generation or two ago we got along with a much more modest arsenal of ways to destabilize the entire earth’s balance.  Maybe we need to get out of the box we’ve been drawn into and reinvent things like a tool with multiple bamboo tines on the end of a long wooden handle that runs on muscle power.

 

             *If bird watchers now prefer to be called “birders” should we consider people interested in watching insects “buggers”?