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A Wildlife Aesthetic
Article #330 January 2022
By Bill Cook

Wildlife species and habitat quality too often, perhaps, are couched under the labels of “good” and “bad” using human attributes when, in reality, all habitat conditions produce “winners” and “losers”.  

          No matter what one does, or doesn’t do, on the landscape, one suite of species will benefit, while others will need to move on.  At least most of the time.  These changes often occur in a random pattern with little or no landscape strategy.  Such is the nature of vast amounts of private land ownership. 
          Maybe, this has been a good thing?  Lots of diversity?  Perhaps, a better paradigm would be to imagine a wildlife future, and then build it.  However, this smacks of cooperation, which requires agreement, which may be an unfeasible expectation. 
          Nearly everyone loves wildlife.  However, in my experience, most people cannot really describe what they mean by that, unless they’re trophy hunters or bird-watchers.  And then, those are rather narrow perspectives, that carries big bucks, money that is. 
          So, what happens when a poster child wildlife species gradually morphs into a serious threat to biological diversity?  Do humans change their attitude?  History suggests that they do not, at least not without a lot of pain. 
          The inverse is also true.  What about that reviled species that turns out to be a hero?  Do human values embrace this understanding?  Not typically. 
          There are nearly 600 species of vertebrates in the Lake States, as either residents, or migrants, or occasional visitors.  Most of them don’t have specific “management plans”.  Many of them have yet to have their full set of habitat requirements defined. 
          I have challenged student groups to name a species of wildlife, one student at a time.  Rarely could we get through 30 different species.  Adult groups are only somewhat more successful. 
          What does this mean?  I’m not sure of all the implications. 
          Long ago, conservationists developed a set of seven tenets to help guide wildlife management.  You can Internet browse these tenets, if you’re curious.  They’re called the “North American Wildlife Model”.  Many biologists suggest the model needs a bit of revision to reflect how the relationships between wildlife, the land, and people have evolved over the past century.  
          There are at least two relationships among humans and wildlife that I think are important.  One, the professional wildlife manager comes armed with science and experience, as well as personal passion.  Two, other people come with other values, which are more difficult to identify.
          One might argue that facts are facts.  However, most of the import of facts comes with the label that we put on these, and how we use them, which are social constructs.  Beware of the latter. 
          Human values pertaining to wildlife, and all things nature, seem to be most often based upon a philosophical set of values of some sort.  This is well and good, I suppose.  However, these human constructs seldom match ecological realities. 
          Take, for instance, wildlife rehabilitation centers.  These centers treat wounded wildlife with the hope of releasing individuals back into the wild.  However, wildlife population dynamics, and the associated ecologies, do not care about individuals.  The survival of populations is what matters.  The notion of “individual importance” is a uniquely human luxury. 
          Now, I accept that individual efforts such as those by wildlife rehab centers are a fine thing, especially for the “feel-gooder”, but I don’t pretend that they help advance the causes of wildlife, except perhaps in the cases of highly endangered species, such as California condors.  What you do (or don’t do) in your backyard may have more influence on wildlife than a rehab center. 
          Might not these rehab monies be better spent serving habitat rehabilitation, rather than that of individuals?  Maybe, maybe not. 
          Both wildlife management and forest management deal in populations, landscapes, and time.  It’s a long game, with monetary and human resources strategically placed to enhance wild things, using the rules of nature as a framework, as defined by the ecological sciences.  Unfortunately, many of these resources, of which there are too few in the first place, are too often misdirected into whatever pool is currently popular.  Witness the grant-funding machine. 
          I have a few wildlife observations that may give some folks a pause for thought.
1. Cute matters.  Photogenic charisma generates care.  The popular species get the lion’s share of management, even if they don’t need it. 
2. Money matters.  Large “nature” organizations care more about their public image and internal bureaucracy than their original mission. 
3. People care about individuals.  Nature cares about populations.
4. The natural world is not a democracy.  It’s all about grabbing the essential resources for genetic survival, not the individual. 
5. Enjoyment and recreation is the prerogative of the tourist.  Management is the realm of the scientist.  Therefore, conflict and controversy often emerge. 
          Am I suggesting that society is totally out of sync with nature?  Certainly not.  There have been a myriad of miraculous success stories since the venturing days of Theodore Roosevelt.  Wildlife research has added volumes to the body of literature and, perhaps, to the books of wisdom.  However, we still convert rich farmlands into subdivisions, and wreak havoc along high value riparian systems with homes, lawns, and dockage.  There are many examples of good intentions being penny-wise and pound-foolish. 
          I think that Aldo Leopold touched poetically on the relationship between people and wildlife in his essay “On A Monument to the Pigeon”, when he lamented the extinction of the once prolific passenger pigeon.  He wrote; “For one species to mourn the death of another is a new thing under the sun.  Had the funeral been ours, the pigeons would hardly have mourned us”

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Barred Owl on a winter roost.

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