by Patrick Orenstein '18
The modern world of wildlife conservation is full of paradoxes. In September the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced that they would not designate the Greater Sage-Grouse, a small bird native to the Western US and Canada, as an endangered species, but would institute a massive land use plan to protect the bird’s habitat. Perhaps to the dismay of some environmentalists, the plan allows for continuing commercial uses, such as gas and oil drilling and cattle grazing, which are vital to the economy of the 10 states affected by the plan. However, the Audubon Society applauded the ruling, pointing out that fear of the strict rules that come with an Endangered Species Act designation had actually motivated business interests to set aside enough land to maintain a healthy grouse population. It may seem counterintuitive, but the same industries whose activities can destroy habitat are sometimes those most eager to protect it. As economic development extends farther into secluded parts of the world, partnering with businesses and communities is vital to protect species and habitat, and sometimes the compromises they come up with can confuse or even anger the general public.
Take, for instance, the case of big game hunting. The recent uproar around the killing of Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe obscured the larger issue of the use of hunting licenses to fund wildlife conservation programs. Many people do not realize that government-issued licenses can cost tens of thousands of dollars and provide a significant portion of the funding for wildlife management agencies from Namibia to the United States. The practice, which is legal under the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES), has come under attack as immoral and encouraging illegal poaching. Any hunting at all, opponents say, supports the idea of hunting endangered species as a proper, even noble endeavor for those rich enough to afford the licenses. At the same time, selective hunting has been shown to incentivize landowners to set aside more space for species and given more funding to government patrols to catch poachers. So the question remains: does the protection of a species as a whole rationalize the death of an individual?
Meanwhile, a new fight over habitat protections is brewing right off the coast of New England. Two especially ecologically rich areas, a network of underwater canyons and mountains 100 miles offshore from Cape Cod, and Cashes Ledge, a shallow patch in the Gulf of Maine, are in the news right now over proposed rules which would permanently close them to businesses. Both areas are known as havens for coral, fish, and whales, and also play a significant role in the food supplies of commercial fish vital to coastal economies. Recently it has been proposed that these areas be included in a new Marine National Monument, an idea which has caused significant unrest in coastal communities. The suggested Marine National Monument would be similar to those set up in the pacific to protect coral reefs and mostly remote islands with important biological significance. The program is an outgrowth of the same law that governs national monuments ranging from Mount St. Helens to the Statue of Liberty and which in 2009 President Obama extended into the ocean. However, using an executive decree on an area which has long been commercially important to the Northeast has brought up complicated legal issues.
Normally, fishing grounds are regulated by the National Marine Fisheries Service together with regional Fisheries Management Councils, and the idea of cutting sections out of those councils’ jurisdictions has not made them happy. At a public meeting in September in Providence, the Chairman of the New England Fishery Management Council said that the sites listed in the proposal were already protected under the council’s existing policies and that “we have and will continue to recognize the sensitivity of corals and other deep-sea animals to fishing impacts.” On the other hand, numerous members of the public as well as fishermen, politicians, and scientists spoke at the meeting in favor of the marine monument designation, speaking passionately for protecting the rich ecosystems of New England. Some pointed out that the areas under discussion were also at risk from other economic activities like oil and gas drilling, while others noted that completely shutting off certain areas to fishing would grow broader fish populations and help the fishing industry in the long term. The situation is in many ways very similar to that of the greater sage-grouse, as conservation groups and businesses square off to protect their interests. Ultimately a compromise looks to be in the future, one in which fishermen actively support habitat protections designed to allow for commercial activities while protecting vulnerable ecosystems.
It’s clear that conservation in the 21st century isn’t all about all-or-nothing approaches. Human development has made it impossible to protect species and their habitats without partnering with local communities and businesses, and conservation agencies need some source of funding to be able to enforce laws on what can be massive areas of rugged terrain. Is the protection of a larger ecosystem worth the death of one rhino or lion? Can governments preserve the sagebrush steppe of the West or the coral canyon of the North Atlantic while still allowing commercial use? A great part of these questions comes down to personal morals, but the recent sagebrush land use plan and its execution will be an important test case of public-private conservation on a massive scale and will be widely watched as a guide to future efforts. Stay tuned.