Conflicts and controversies involving interactions between human beings, their communities, and the environment have become defining issues of our time. There is a growing awareness of both the physical effects of people on the environment and the ways in which beliefs, cultural norms, and economic conditions shape the human response to these issues. Human beings are increasing in number worldwide. Many of our lifestyle choices now appear to have a measurable and harmful impact on biological and environmental systems in the United States as well as around the world. Continued growth in population and the resulting sprawl of people into previously unsettled land forces individuals, governments, and society as a whole to examine current and future priorities in regard to lifestyle and the natural world.
One of the serious environmental problems facing humankind today is the loss of biological diversity. Biodiversity is the vast and varied combination of habitats , plants, and animals that thrive together to support life on Earth. Scientists feel that these losses are the direct result of the transformation of natural landscapes and ecosystems for farming, grazing, recreational, and residential uses.
Biodiversity is lost when farmers clear land to increase crop yield, when loggers clear forests to provide lumber for houses and furniture, and when city dwellers need more land for homes, schools, and industry. Cutting oldgrowth forests has encouraged erosion on slopes and mountains. Wetlands have been drained and rivers dammed and diverted to provide water for irrigation and drinking water. Overgrazing of grasslands and the use of fertilizers and pesticides have polluted lakes, rivers, and streams, creating fragmented habitats where native species have difficulty surviving.
Demographic shifts and population growth have encouraged people to live in areas once populated by wild animals. These habitats are increasingly affected by human-imposed changes including roads, new uses for private and public lands, and the environmental demands associated with agricultural and urban life. Species such as wolves, mountain lions, polar bears, and the northern spotted owl do not recognize these artificial restrictions on their habitats and have thus come into direct conflict with human beings and their way of life.
While government officials, environmentalists, developers, and industry representatives fashion regulations designed to protect, preserve, and safeguard both ecosystems and human beings, wild animals and people continue to come into conflict with one another. How these issues are resolved will depend on the ways in which conflicting priorities and questions are addressed. What are the ecological, sociological, aesthetic, and scientific benefits of preservation? What are the rights of animals? Do people have an obligation to preserve species? Can society balance economic interests and human needs with efforts to preserve and protect the natural world?
Spotted Owls vs. Loggers
For hundreds of years, the northern spotted owl has made its home in the lush old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest. The owl feeds on the rich plant and invertebrate life created by decaying timber and nests in the cavities of old trunks. But the towering cedars, firs, hemlocks, and spruces have become a primary source of timber for a multibillion dollar logging industry. As a result of heavy logging since the mid-nineteenth century, only 10 percent of these ancient forests still exist, mostly on federally managed lands. As the forests have dwindled so have the number of spotted owls. Biologists estimated that fewer than 2,000 pairs were in existence in the early 1990s.
In 1986 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was petitioned to list the spotted owl as an endangered species, a move that would bar the timber industry from cutting on these lands. In June 1990, after years of heated controversy among timber industry representatives, environmentalists, and government agencies, the northern spotted owl was declared a threatened species. Because of this, timber companies are required to leave 40 percent of the remaining old growth intact within a 2.1 kilometer (1.3-mile) radius of any spotted owl nest or site. This policy is opposed by the timber industry. Industry representatives claim that this requirement will leave thousands of loggers and mill workers jobless. They believe that this policy and others like it do not take into account the economic consequences of preservation. Environmentalists, on the other hand, argue that society has a fundamental obligation to preserve this rare species and the wilderness in which it lives.
The controversy over the spotted owl mirrors similar debates over dolphins, whales, and desert tortoises. In each situation, conflicting opinions exist concerning society's obligation to protect animals threatened by extinction. The question raised repeatedly is, "To what extent, if any, should preservation of endangered species and their habitats take precedence over economic considerations?"
Restoring Wolves in Yellowstone National Park
Wolves once ranged over most of the United States but were eliminated from the northern Rockies by the 1930s. From 1918 to 1935, government bounty hunters shot and killed predators including coyotes, wolves, and mountain lions. By 1926, the last wolf was eliminated from Yellowstone National Park. This was the result of an aggressive government-sponsored predator control program and public policy that was based on the assumption that wolves had no value.
This perception and policy continued until the 1970s, when many environmental protection provisions were implemented. In 1972 the U.S. Department of the Interior began an initiative to return native biodiversity to the national parks. As part of this effort, the Endangered Species Act required that the Fish and Wildlife Service have a recovery plan for threatened and endangered species.
In 1987 a Rocky Mountain Wolf Recovery plan was proposed to reintroduce grey wolves into the northern Rockies, including Yellowstone National Park. Local opposition was strong and vocal. Nearby residents worried that wolves would kill their domestic animals and perhaps cause injury to humans. Ranchers and hunters expressed concern that a top predator such as the wolf would reduce cattle, sheep, deer, and bison populations and travel outside the boundaries of the park.
Environmentalists countered that, as large predators, wolves were an essential part of the natural ecosystem that would help control the swelling populations of elk, deer, and bison and increase the numbers of eagles, pronghorn, foxes, and wolverines. An organization called the Defenders of Wildlife agreed to establish a $100,000 fund to reimburse any rancher who lost livestock because of wolves.
In May 1994, the Interior Department and the Fish and Wildlife Service finally approved the plan for reintroducing wolves into Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho. This led to the successful reintroduction of sixty-six wolves in 1995 and 1996.
Monitoring suggests that the wolves are indeed having a positive effect by controlling the populations of elk, bison, and deer. Coyote numbers have dropped, allowing smaller predators such as foxes to regain strength. The reduction of elk, deer, and bison has allowed willow and aspen trees to regenerate and restore overgrazed areas.
In addition, the grey wolves have begun to recover. They are to be taken off the endangered species list when there are ten breeding pairs in Yellowstone, Idaho, and Montana. Ranchers are allowed to kill wolves that attack livestock. Some have also accepted reimbursement for livestock losses from the Compensation Trust set up by the Defenders of Wildlife.
Mountain Lions and Public Safety
Since the mid-1980s, encounters with mountain lions have become more frequent throughout the United States. Hikers, joggers, mountain bike riders, and suburban residents have unexpectedly found themselves in the company of these lions. Some encounters have led to the deaths of human beings.
Although unusual, these incidents have rekindled public debate about mountain lion management. Issues include the shrinking habitat of mountain lions, increased competition for space, the legalities of hunting the lions, and ways to increase public awareness and safety in areas where human beings are encroaching on the traditional habitat of mountain lions.
California has been at the forefront of this debate since the mid-1980s. The rising population of both humans and mountain lions in the state led to an intensive study of the problem by the Department of Game and Fish. Prior to 1986 there was very little concern for public safety from lions. Between 1986 and 1995, however, ten attacks were verified by state officials; a number of them resulted in deaths.
The study's findings concluded that an increase in the mountain lion population and its geographic range, combined with an increase in California's human population, had indeed resulted in increased encounters between animals and people. Research also revealed that the lions were expanding their range into new areas as competition for habitat increased. Since animals compete for food and space, some lions were being forced out of their ranges and ending up in residential or recreational areas where problems were more likely to occur. Wildlife officials recommended controversial safety precautions as well as habitat protection for the lions.
California voters approved a mountain lion initiative in 1990 that prohibited the hunting of lions. In 1996 the National Rifle Association filed a suit that resulted in the repeal of the 1990 initiative and once again allowed hunting and the use of steel-jawed traps, leghold traps, and poison, and decreased the amount of money to be used for habitat protection. Concern for public safety was given as the main reason for not giving any protection to the mountain lion.
Adventure Travel and Climate Change: Polar Bears in Canada
Churchill, Manitoba, is called the polar bear capital of the world. Nearly 15,000 tourists visit this northwestern Canadian town each winter to observe, film, and photograph the bears as they congregate near the mouth of the Churchill River, waiting for the Hudson Bay to freeze so that they can head out on the ice to hunt ringed seals, which are their primary food source.
During the tourist season, more than 500 people per day are allowed to go out on adventure expeditions to observe the polar bears. The sole means of observing the bears is from the "tundra buggy," which is best described as a large, roomy bus mounted on 1.8-meter (six-foot) high, all-terrain rubber tires. The vehicle is designed to transport tourists across the tundra looking for bears. Many wildlife managers are concerned about the effect of this human encroachment on the fragile tundra. They are also concerned that the polar bears, who are at their weakest after months with limited food resources, are suffering from a lack of undisturbed time in their natural habitat at a critical point in their life cycle.
There is another concern about the human impact on the habitat of the polar bears in the Hudson Bay area, however. Researchers have been studying a group of 1,200 bears in the Churchill area for nearly thirty years. These bears are giving scientists glimpses of long-term changes in the climate that may be caused by global warming . The ice is melting earlier and earlier each year, causing the bears to come ashore sooner than they used to. These shorter feeding seasons have led to near starvation among the bears.
The combination of climate changes and increased tourism is putting stress on the population of polar bears and increasing the possibility that polar bears desperate for food will encounter people on a more regular basis, endangering human safety. Wildlife officials say that the bear population is declining. The adventure travel companies report that they are seeing fewer bears, and thinner bears. They are also reporting more encounters between humans and polar bears on the tundra.
In all of these conflicts involving human enterprise and wildlife habitats, there are few easy choices to be made. Environmentalists and animal rights activists raise reasonable questions about the preservation of wildlife for future generations and the right of wild animals to live peacefully in their native forests, deserts, tundras, or wetlands. Communities that are economically dependent on tourism, the harvesting of forests, the raising of livestock, or the expansion of their boundaries express reasonable concern about how to balance human needs with environmental protection measures. Meanwhile, both human beings and native wildlife continue to adapt to each other's presence in environments they now share.
see also Habitat Loss; Habitat Restoration.
Andre, Claire. "Ethics and the Spotted Owl Controversy." Issues in Ethics, 4, no. 1(1993).
Bolgiano, Chris. Mountain Lion: An Unnatural History of Pumas and People. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1995.
Eldridge, Niles. Life in the Balance: Humanity and the Biodiversity Crisis. Princeton, NJ:Princeton University Press, 1998.
Grumbine, Edward R. Ghost Bears: Exploring the Biodiversity Crisis. Washington, D.C.:Island Press, 1992.
Phillips, Michael K., and Douglas Smith. The Wolves of Yellowstone. Stillwater, MN:Voyageur Press, 1996.
Torres, Steve. Mountain Lion Alert: Safety Tips for Yourself, Your Children, Your Pets, and Your Livestock in Lion Country. Helena, MT: Falcon Press, 1997.
In the spring of 2001, the Great Falls Tribune (Great Falls, Montana) ran a front page story about the Interagency Annual Wolf Report. According to the report, the wolf population is reaching recovery level (30 breeding pairs). Removal of the wolf from the endangered species list, the report concluded, is probably only three years away.
In 1993, professor Paul Beier, a wildlife ecology professor at Northern Arizona University, launched a five-year study of mountain lions in the Santa Ana Mountains of California. He fitted 32 animal with electronic collars. In 1998, there were only 25 survivors. A third of the animals that died were hit by cars. Other causes of death ranged from fights with other animals to being trapped for the protection of livestock.