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and nearly all the cellarless small cottages built up on piers so plumbing could be drained from beneath each fall have been replaced by substantial “summer homes”.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 .