Standing in the presence of the unbelievably immense, monolithic slabs of stone in Zion National Park is an experience that is not soon forgotten and, I’d argue, even spiritual. Gaze up at those massive sandstone cliffs as you hike The Narrows and you’d swear you’ve entered an alien world where 2,000-foot-high gods of rock rule. If you’re brave enough, you can even trek on the shoulders of those gods, by walking on the aptly named Angels Landing Trail. And since 84 percent of the park is designated as wilderness, there are scores of other spots where you can commune with nature and find solitude.
But now imagine that you’re in Zion walking that precipitous pathway — with sheer drop-offs on both sides — and a drone buzzes close by your head. Not only does that distract you and make you feel unsafe, it suddenly changes your great outdoor and unplugged experience.
Similar scenarios in our national parks have caused some of them — including Zion National Park — to ban drone use. While some applaud the move, others feel that their preferred way to photograph the parks is being unfairly singled out and prohibited. But is attaching a camera to a drone truly similar to other forms of photography?
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?
Wildlife conservation campaigns often focus on the needs of endangered species, asking you to donate money in order to save their habitats, fight poaching of them, stop illegal trade in them or build refuges for them.
But at a recent seminar at the Royal Anthropological Institute in London, Professor Catherine Hill of the city’s Oxford Brookes University suggested that such campaigns may be doomed to fail unless an added, important issue is addressed: the attitudes and feelings of the people who live in the threatened species’ ranges.
According to the results of a recent study conducted by Dr. Hill, residents of communities in Uganda felt that they were being treated as though their lives were worth less than those of the animals that surrounded them.
Can conservation efforts, then, no matter how well intended, ever succeed if the local populace feels that their needs come second?
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?
Despite your stance on the ethics of radio-collaring wild animals, it can’t be denied that such endeavors provide scientists with reams of valuable data, such as information on where and how animals move and migrate, the nuisance activity they engage in, their reproduction and mortality rates, and how to establish wise management practices regarding them.
That’s why when a collared research animal is lost, it’s not just a detriment to that animal’s social group or species but to our understanding of nature, as well.
Usually, the death of a collared animal goes unnoticed, except within a few scientific circles. But when Wolf No. 754, a popular Yellowstone National Park research animal, was recently shot by a hunter in Wyoming’s Shoshone National Forest, a few miles outside the national park boundary, reverberations and outrage were felt around the world.
It’s causing some to ask: Should research animals be given full, legal protection?
Our national parks are our soul-restoring places; the spots we run to when we need to escape the constant clatter of civilization. They are where we go to see the last vestiges of wild America. And each of our national parks seems to have at least one iconic image that lives in our consciousness, whether we’ve actually seen it in person or not: landmarks such as El Capitan in Yosemite, the bubbling hot springs in Yellowstone, or the hoodoos in Bryce Canyon.
Now picture yourself standing on the rim of one of our national parks’ stunning canyons, looking out on nature’s beauty. You’re awed and inspired by the scene in front of you, until your eyes begin to register a structure that doesn’t seem to belong. Then you suddenly recognize what it is: a huge trophy home, with windows from floor to ceiling and a wraparound deck.
That could never happen, right? It could, and it almost did last month in one of our most treasured natural spaces.
It’s long been known that the undersea noise we create with our large machines — oil drilling equipment, ships and submarines — has a detrimental effect on whales, causing hearing damage and changes in feeding, mating and communication. And noise from snowmobiles has often been cited as the reason some species of animals in Yellowstone National Park are being stressed and pushed out of their preferred habitats, impacting their health and increasing mortality.
It turns out that our large machines, though, may not be our only cause for concern when it comes to outdoor noise pollution and its effects on the natural world. Our small, compact mobile phones — and the apps we put on them — have been shown to change the behavior of birds.
Will the noise we individuals are increasingly capable of imposing upon other species outdoors soon also have enough power to affect their ability to survive?
In the environmental world, it’s characterized as the classic battle: Should wild areas be preserved for their intrinsic qualities or conserved for their resources? In other words, should nature be used for “the greatest good for the greatest number of people for the longest time,” as nineteenth-century progressive environmentalist Gifford Pinchot put it; or should the wilderness be protected and revered without human intrusions, a view espoused by romantic environmentalist John Muir?
Today, with a burgeoning population encroaching on our remaining wild areas and economic help scarce, many would say that Pinchot’s beliefs are more realistic for the modern world. In fact, there are even those, such as Peter Kareiva, The Nature Conservancy’s chief scientist, who would take Pinchot’s notion a step further: Natural areas must be managed to benefit humans, if they are to survive at all.
Whether you’re an avid sportsman or purely a wildlife-watcher, it’s a fact that the animals, birds and fish you endeavor to see are “paid for” mostly by hunters. Those who engage in hunting, fishing and trapping are the major contributors to conservation funds in almost every state. Surprisingly, the monies animal-viewers and birdwatchers donate to conservation efforts rarely add up to even a third or a half of what hunters put into department of natural resources funds — even though watchers greatly outnumber them.
In my own state of Wisconsin, deer-hunting licenses and permits generated $22.7 million in revenue for the department of natural resources in 2010. And in most years, an excise tax on hunting equipment provides an additional $10 million to the state for wildlife management — in one case, supplying $400,000 to study and prepare for the likely arrival of a deadly bat disease. The problem is, however, that the number of hunters — along with anglers and trappers — is declining. And it promises to keep decreasing as the population ages.
So as the economy tightens, causing state and federal budgets for wildlife conservation to continue to be cut, and if younger people are not taking up hunting and fishing, where will future environmental monies come from?
With a few exceptions, much of the U.S. has been experiencing an unseasonably warm and dry winter. While that may make some people happy, those of us who welcome snow, sweaters, skating and skiing are missing winter’s frosty grip.
If you’re feeling as blah as the brown landscape outside, consider a mid-winter adventure to colder climes. There’s nothing like nature beauteously transformed by an icy white veneer to lift even the most listless spirit. From dog sledding to tracking wolves, sleeping in an ice hotel and watching the Northern Lights, cold-weather travel is all kinds of cool!