On a wild, remote island in Lake Superior called Isle Royale, gray wolves have lived and thrived for more than 60 years. In the forests on this island — which encompasses the majority of Michigan’s Isle Royale National Park — a wolf population that grew to almost 50 individuals once contributed to a biodiverse, healthy ecosystem.
In recent years, however, the number of wolves on Isle Royale has plummeted. In 2009, scientists from the Wolves and Moose of Isle Royale project — begun in 1958 and now the longest continuous study of a predator-prey system in the world — documented only 24 wolves living on the island. As of February 2014, that number had dwindled to nine — the second lowest total for the island ever recorded.
Some blame climate change for the decrease. Others say it is just the natural order of things for species to come and go in a particular area. But whatever the cause, the question for the future health of the island and the park is: should we intervene to save Isle Royale’s wolves?
Recently, while reading the November/December 2013 issue of Sierra, the magazine of the Sierra Club, I came across a graphic that startled me. It depicted two columns, labeled “House” and “Senate.” Under each of those titles were two more columns, showing the number of Democrats and Republicans in each branch of the legislature that are climate change deniers. Under the House section were 200 Democrats; none were listed as climate change deniers. Of the 233 Republicans, 128 deny climate change.
In the Senate, there were 52 Democrats (with two Independents), again with 0 climate change deniers. Of the 46 Republicans, 30 deny that the world is warming.
My goal here is not to cast aspersions on any one party but to look at the big picture. It is possible that we can make strides to protect the planet against the devastating effects caused by rapid climate change if our leadership fails to believe it is real?
I have to admit it: last year, my traveling to Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, to see polar bears in the wild was motivated not only by a 10-year anniversary but by a fear that soon the animals could be gone. I go to see glaciers because I’m afraid we’re losing them. And this coming January, I’m returning to Yellowstone National Park to try to photograph our nation’s wolves before they almost completely disappear in the Lower 48 — again.
You could call me an “extinction tourist.”
I’m far from unique. In fact, today people are traveling in ever-greater numbers to see what they think could quickly vanish from the Earth. While just a few years ago travelers might have endeavored to tick off all seven continents or Africa’s Big Five wildlife species, today there’s a certain “cred” given to those who see the landscapes, animals and plants that are just managing to hang on. And tour providers are tapping into that desire with their marketing messages. “See [fill in your favorite endangered animals] before they’re gone!”
But should tourism companies use threatened species as marketing tools? Given our ability to tune out ads, does that minimize the dire circumstances that these animals and environments are now in and dilute the attention that conservation messages might have been able to muster?
I recently did an interview with a local radio station. I’d been invited on to talk about Earth Month and what we can do in our homes to reduce our carbon footprint.
I offered up my usual advice — neither new nor glamorous, but nonetheless worth repeating. We must, I said, remember that the three Rs start with “reduce.” We absolutely must reduce our consumption of fossil-fuel-burning energy. And then I outlined how incredibly simple — as well as economically sound — this is. If you’re doing it right, I said, living green should, overall, save you money.
The radio interviewer interrupted. “Hasn’t Earth Day lost its appeal?” he asked. “Didn’t it used to be trendy? Don’t you worry now that no one cares?”
The image of the woolly mammoth, saber-toothed cat and dodo bird stepping out of a beaker on the cover of National Geographic’s April issue says it all. Science has found a way to bring back some long-extinct species — or at least, facsimiles of them.
In truth, the goat-like bucardo, or Pyrenean ibex, is the only extinct animal scientists have actually revived. In 2003, biologists managed to clone an offspring from frozen skin cells from the last survivor, which died in 2000. The clone, however, lived for only a few minutes after its birth. Since then, advances in cloning technology have made it possible to bring back any species if there is a remnant of DNA.
But with so many habitat pressures on the wild species that are already here and with so many on the brink of extinction, is bringing back those we’ve already lost a good idea?
“Busy” has become the anthem of the anxious. And yet, when asked, most are hard-pressed to say what, exactly, they’re so busy doing. They shrug and say, “you know, with kids,” or an even more vague, “Not enough hours in the day.”
There was a time I envied those “busy” people. Thanks to a youth spent largely ignored by my more-popular peers, I equated “busy” with “popular.” At home with my books, I imagined “busy” meant parties and concerts, dinners with friends, and interesting work commitments. The lives of “busy” people struck me as exciting. Their time was in demand, and their busyness seemed an indictment of my own busy-less life.
Coral reefs around the world are in trouble. According to the World Wildlife Fund, about one-quarter of coral reefs are considered damaged beyond repair, with another two-thirds under serious threat. Some suffer from heavy fishing pressures, while others are succumbing to pollution or careless tourism. Climate change, with its attendant rising sea temperatures, is exacerbating the problem, speeding coral deaths.
More than half a billion people live near corals, relying on them for food, shelter from storm surges and the income that tourism brings. With natural reefs diminishing, artificial reefs are increasingly gaining favor. These structures usually take the form of sunken ships, decrepit oil platforms or other human trash.
But is depositing more human refuse in the oceans in order to create artificial reefs healthy for the environment — and for us?
We could be on the brink of a mass extinction — the Earth’s sixth — according to a paper published last year in the journal Nature. First author Anthony Barnosky, an integrative biologist at the University of California at Berkeley, says Earth has experienced five mass extinctions during the past 540 million years, and another extinction could be around the corner. During each of the five previous events, three-quarters or more of the world’s animal species died out. One of the mass extinctions — which occurred 65 million years ago — ended the dinosaurs.
Some say, however, that this isn’t much cause for alarm. Species have always come and gone over long periods of time; and given the five mass extinctions we’ve already had, it’s a natural event. But will this sixth one be a “different animal”?
Big wads of plastic in the ocean that stretch for miles and disintegrating polar ice caps are the kind of news stories that tend to make us feel hopeless regarding conservation efforts. Why bother to change our light bulbs to compact fluorescents if our planet’s imminent demise is a speeding train that can’t be stopped?
The reason we have these feelings is probably the work of environmentalists themselves. They’re sending the wrong messages, if you ascribe to the new field of neuro-conservation.
Instead of focusing the spotlight on results of scientific studies that prove our planet is rapidly warming, or on statistics about alarming species extinction rates, they should be talking about how an ocean view will make us feel happy or standing among trees will arouse our feelings of peacefulness.
After all, selling us emotions is what marketing professionals have been doing for decades. They know that we don’t just buy a car; we buy how that car makes us feel — wealthier, greener or more in control. Using the tenets of neuro-conservation may just be the boost that environmentalists need to gain support for their causes in a world that’s overrun with more scientific data than we know what to do with — or pay attention to.
Sure, you’ve thought about adding solar panels to your roof as a way of reducing your home’s carbon footprint. Maybe you’ve even given wind power a gander. But what about ground source heat pumps?