In John Crowley’s science fiction novel Beasts, humans decide they’ve inflicted enough damage on the Earth, and utilize their technology to construct a giant tower removed from the rest of the world.
They achieve self sufficiency in food and energy production, and thus no longer interact or inflict damage on the rest of the world. Of course, they’re also no longer interacting with nature, but to them it seems a small price to pay.
Some days, I fear many environmentalists aspire to just such a world.
One school of thought suggests that any time humans interact with the natural world, they invariably muck things up.
However, with 6 billion (and counting) of us inhabiting the planet, we can’t just wall ourselves off from fellow creatures (see Peter Kareiva’s recent Cool Green Science post questioning the value of a blanket strategy of protected areas for conservation). The real issue of conservation is not how we remove ourselves from wildlife, but how we interact with wildlife.
And sometimes, that means making difficult choices.
Take beaver dams.
A beaver dam on a stream is always a magical place, with waterfowl, yellow-headed blackbirds, trout and a whole host of other creatures benefiting from the wetland the dam creates.
So why do Conservancy land managers sometimes alter, lower or even completely remove beaver dams from streams? Isn’t that unnatural? Isn’t it counter to our organization’s mission?
Wouldn’t it be better just to leave the stream to beavers?
At the Conservancy’s Silver Creek Preserve, beaver dams sometimes back up onto nearby farm fields and roads, causing economic damage to landowners.
In these instances, as my colleagues describe in a post on the Idaho Nature Notes blog, the Silver Creek staff will alter the beaver dams so that area farmers aren’t impacted.
Doing so respects local farmers — many of whom have placed easements on their land so it’s not developed.
It also benefits beavers. By working out a compromise between beaver habitat and farmers, beavers will remain a part of Silver Creek for a long, long time. Insisting that beaver dams always remain untouched by humans only turns people against conservation.
Such compromises can be difficult, but they’re worth it if we want a world with wildlife. Rather than wall ourselves off from other species, we need to find ways we can share space.
This may mean removing beaver dams from time to time.
It may also mean killing individual predators like wolves — as sacrosanct as such animals have become to many — when they are threatening livestock.
It certainly means lowering deer populations when they’re devouring eastern U.S. forests.
Some people would rather let nature to its own devices, in all situations. The cost of that approach, unfortunately, is too often nature is restricted to “out there” — only the biggest and most remote wildernesses — rather than all around us.
Leave streams to beavers? I’m all for that, as much as possible. But I’d rather have a world where beavers are common but managed than one where they are restricted to wilderness.
(Image: Silver Creek Preserve staffer lowers beaver dam. Credit: Dayna Gross/TNC.)