Wildlife Conservation: A Culture of Life
By JIM DIPESO, REP Policy Director
AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: This article first appeared in the C.E.P (Conservative Environmental Policy) Quarterly, Summer 2005, Vol. 1, #2
The horseshoe crab is a plain sort of creature that inhabits the waters of Delaware Bay.
No one eats horseshoe crabs or takes vacations to Delaware Bay to look at them. Compared to animal celebrities such as the bald eagle or the American bison, horseshoe crabs have little charisma. Other than their use as fish bait, what good are they?
Anyone who has been hospitalized owes a debt of gratitude to the horseshoe crab. The blood of horseshoe crabs contains a clotting agent that the pharmaceutical industry uses to test intravenous medications for harmful bacteria. No IV drug can be stocked in hospital pharmacies unless it has passed the horseshoe crab test.
A wildlife management strategy that adheres to the traditional conservative principle of prudence would never assume that we know all there is to know about wildlife species, or that we are somehow free to ignore their welfare and let them go extinct.
The extraordinary medicinal value of horseshoe crab blood was not known until a Johns Hopkins researcher found it in the 1960s.
Wildlife holds many secrets that we have yet to discover and may deliver benefits in the future that we can scarcely imagine today. Plant and animal species are a vast genetic inheritance, a global library with reading rooms waiting to be explore.
As conservation biologist Aldo Leopold liked to say, the first rule of intelligent tinkering is to save all the parts. Safeguarding the wildlife endowment, in all its diversity, is an essential conservative strategy for securing America’s future. A wildlife management strategy that adheres to the traditional conservative principle of prudence would never assume that we know all there is to know about wildlife species, or that we are somehow free to ignore their welfare and let them go extinct.
Nearly a century ago, Theodore Roosevelt spoke and wrote eloquently about the importance of conserving wildlife, for both their practical value and their iconic link to the wild landscape that shaped America’s history, culture, and national identity.
In his 1916 book, A Book-Lover’s Holidays in the Open, Roosevelt wrote:
Birds should be saved for utilitarian reasons; and, moreover, they should be saved because of reasons unconnected with dollars and cents. A grove of giant redwoods or sequoias should be kept just as we keep a great and beautiful cathedral. The extermination of the passenger pigeon meant that mankind was just so much poorer… And to lose the chance to see frigate birds soaring in circles above the storm, or a file of pelicans winging their way homeward across the crimson afterglow of the sunset, or a myriad of terns flashing in the bright light of midday as they hover in a shifting maze above the beach — why, the loss is like the loss of a gallery of the masterpieces of the artists of old time.
In 1903, Roosevelt established the first of 55 bird and game reservations set aside during his presidency. They became the nucleus of America’s system of national wildlife refuges, which today cover 96 million acres in all 50 states. The National Wildlife Refuge System is an endowment providing essential habitat that plants and animals require to survive and thrive.
The utilitarian reasons for safeguarding wildlife populations and the intact environments that sustain them are many. The essential services that wildlife are known to provide include crop pollination, pest control, and soil fertility.
Take pollinators, for example. Of the estimated 1,330 crop species raised for food, drink, fibers, flavorings, spices, and drugs, 75 percent are pollinated by animals. In the U.S., insect pollination results in $40 billion worth of products every year.
Wildlife returns dollars and cents merely by existing. A U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service national survey published in 2001 estimated that 82 million Americans spent $108 billion on hunting, fishing and wildlife watching activities that year — nearly equal to Oregon’s total gross domestic product.
Wildlife recreation is an economic keystone for many communities. The Great Texas Birding Classic lures visitors to the Gulf Coast every year to match eyes and skills in tournament birdwatching. The New Haven Hawk Festival; the Festival of Owls in Houston, Minnesota; the return of the swallows to Mission San Juan Capistrano; and Buzzards Day in Hinckley, Ohio are a few examples of wildlife-oriented events that enrich local cultures and strengthen community economies.
Beyond immediate utilitarian services, plants and animals also have intangible value, inspiring us with their beauty and serving as cultural symbols. One reason why the Endangered Species Act was enacted into law by a large bipartisan majority was that letting the American bald eagle and other culturally significant wildlife go extinct was not considered acceptable.
This year’s electrifying news about the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker, the “Lord God” bird — so called because of its striking appearance and long thought to have gone extinct — tugged at the heartstrings of Americans who grew up around the bottom land hardwood forests and tupelo swamps of the South.
One need not be a native Southerner to appreciate the emotional wallop that the bird’s rediscovery packed. The ivory bill is a living link to a past America where virgin forests were extant, rivers flowed untamed, wildlife abounded, and an expansive wilderness invited pioneers to follow Huck Finn’s freedom quest and “light out for the territory.”
Wildlife refuges are home to nearly 1,400 animal species, including endangered creatures such as the blue whale, whooping crane, Florida panther, Sonoran pronghorn, grizzly bear — and the ivory-billed woodpecker, rediscovered in remote forests within the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas.
Much of the stunning variety of America the Beautiful is represented in the refuges: Arctic tundra, Sonoran desert, mountain valleys, old-growth forests, prairie wetlands, coastal marshes, sagebrush grasslands, cypress swamps, mangrove estuaries, and tropical atolls.
A U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service national survey published in 2001 estimated that
82 million Americans spent $108 billion on hunting, fishing and wildlife watching activities that year— nearly equal to Oregon’s total gross domestic product.
As America’s national wildlife refuges enter their second century, however, their future is in question.
The refuge system lacks sufficient funding to ensure proper stewardship of the wildlife resources in its care. The system faces an estimated operations and maintenance backlog that exceeds $2 billion. Many refuges lack visitor facilities and staff biologists. While volunteers contribute invaluable services to refuges, their labors of love do not close the gap between refuge needs and staffing levels.
Noxious invasive species threaten to crowd out native wildlife. Midwestern refuges, for example, are afflicted by fast-spreading weeds such as purple loosestrife, leafy spurge, buckthorn, and spotted knapweed.
Refuges, many too small to fully protect the wildlife that rely on them, are being squeezed by conversion of nearby farms, forests, and open space to sprawl.
Individual refuges face specific threats.
One example is a plan by a water agency in the sprawling Las Vegas area to pump groundwater beneath the Desert National Wildlife Refuge Complex in Nevada. The pumping threatens to dry up springs that bighorn sheep and other wildlife depend upon.
Another is a proposed fighter jet training field near Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina. A military expert in aviation bird strike hazards has warned that Pocosin Lakes is a poor location for the facility because of the proximity of tens of thousands of wintering migratory birds.
No threat is more acute than the proposal to open the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, through FY 2006 budget reconciliation legislation that Congress will take up this fall.
While doing little to reduce oil imports and nothing to wean America off an increasingly dangerous dependence on oil, drilling in the Arctic Refuge would set a precedent that places all of America’s wildlife refuges at risk.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is America’s largest and wildest. It contains a rare convergence of six northern ecosystems and possesses a diverse spectrum of habitats, and fish and wildlife populations that are unparalleled in the entire circumpolar north.
The refuge attracts birds from all 50 states and from around the world. Migratory birds that millions of Americans know and cherish — sandhill cranes, tundra swans, peregrine falcons, and hundreds of others — depend on the special habitat within the Arctic Refuge that they cannot find anywhere else. The refuge is also home to caribou, bear, moose, wolf, fox, musk ox, Dall sheep, wolverine, and ermine. Bowhead whale and ringed seal live in its adjacent coastal waters.
While doing little to reduce oil imports and nothing to wean America off an increasingly dangerous dependence on oil, drilling in the Arctic Refuge would set a precedent that places all of America’s wildlife refuges at risk, allowing short-term politics and commercial agendas to trump the traditional values of stewardship that have stood the test of time. The National Wildlife Refuge System is the embodiment of Theodore Roosevelt’s prudent ethic of wildlife conservation. It is a legacy rooted in conservatism that is as important today as it was in Roosevelt’s time. It is also a legacy that is threatened as never before.
The upcoming vote on the fate of the Arctic Refuge is a critical one for all the wildlife resources that are held in trust for all citizens. Will Congress choose a path of expedience, extinction, and disregard for the needs of future generations? Or will Congress choose the conservative path of prudence, discipline and humility in safeguarding the natural heritage that shaped America?
Visit this page of our website to see personal photos of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and learn how REP fought to save it in 2004-2005. (That story is about 2/3 of the way down the page.)
And here’s a beautiful personal memoir of visiting the Refuge: Jim DiPeso’s Arctic Refuge Chronicles.