Points North: After Centuries Of Wildlife Destruction, Have We Learned Anything?

Sea Otter Hunters, 1896
Sea Otter Hunters, 1896

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Steve Nicholls has opened a window to view North America as none of us will ever see it. His 2009 book, “Paradise Found, Nature in America at the Time of Discovery,” (University of Chicago Press) chronicles the abundance of wildlife when Europeans first arrived on the continent. Beginning with the arrival of the Vikings, 500 years before Columbus, Nicholls uses historical narrative and the first-hand accounts of early explorers, naturalists and others to describe the extraordinary places they discovered. And what a place it was. Shoals of cod were so thick off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland they could stop a boat. In California, herds of grizzly bears roamed the hillsides. Across the continent, skies were darkened by the flights of myriad bird species. Islands and coastal areas were covered with nesting colonies of seabirds numbering in the millions. This abundance was considered endless by early Europeans and it’s easy to understand why. With few people and limited technology, it was difficult for them to over-exploit the fish and wildlife, and the newly discovered continent was vast beyond belief.
 
But it didn't take long for human endeavor to get ahead of the curve. Time and again, fish and wildlife were plundered on an unimaginable scale. And time and again, species of seemingly endless abundance plummeted to extinction or nearly so. First to disappear were birds and mammals available by sea. An early casualty was a penguin-like bird of the North Atlantic, the great auk, which was so docile and delectable that sailors would herd them aboard ships to carry as a living larder. Later, the birds were slaughtered to make oil, their carcasses used as fuel for fires to render auk fat into oil. The last two were beaten to death in 1844. In the Pacific, Stellar's sea cow was first observed by naturalist George Stellar in 1740. His is the only record of the species, which was wiped out by early Russian fur hunters shortly thereafter. Furs and whale oil drove the exploitation of other marine species—sea otters, fur seals and the great whales—to commercial, if not complete, extinction.
 
The New World was not pristine. The people who were living here when the Europeans arrived had a profound influence on the landscape. In the East, forests comprised of massive mast and nut-bearing hardwoods were clear of underbrush from repeated intentional fires. The trees were so tall that early hunters complained that roosting turkeys were out of range for their guns. White-tailed deer, elk, cougars, black bears and even bison were numerous in the eastern forest.
 
Two birds, the Carolina parakeet and the passenger pigeon, roamed the forest in tremendous flocks. Bright green with a yellow head and orange cheeks, the Carolina parakeet was a parrot found mostly around old-growth sycamore and bald cypress, though they seemed to adapt to clearing and agriculture after settlers arrived. While they were not exploited like many other creatures, they dwindled away to extinction in the 1930s or'40s. The passenger pigeon was likely the most numerous bird in the world. Observers estimated some flocks contained over one billion birds. Feeding on mast, they ranged across the eastern forests, nesting in vast colonies covering 100 square miles or more. Market slaughter combined with habitat loss led to their extinction in the early years of the 20th century. These birds needed abundance in order to overwhelm predators and thrive. As their numbers dwindled, they were no longer able to reproduce. But this ecological lesson was learned in hindsight, after the birds were gone. Not that knowing what the passenger pigeon needed to survive would have made a difference. Market hunters destroyed the last known nesting colony in Michigan, fully aware it was likely the only one left. This repeated a common thread through American history, where the slaughter for market continued to kill fish and wildlife until the supply was completely depleted.
 
This approach to harvest was at contrast with that of native people, who undoubtedly had a significant impact on the nation’s fish and wildlife. In fact, some of the wildlife abundance encountered by early explorers may have been due to the decimation of native populations that occurred as western diseases swept across North America far ahead of the explorers. Lewis and Clark noted game was most abundant in lands between warring tribes and that there was little game along the Columbia River where they found numerous Indian settlements. While the native people used fish and wildlife and manipulated the landscape to benefit desired species, their cultures included beliefs and values that served to limit harvests. That said, once introduced to capitalism, native people were often participants in market slaughter, especially for furs. Even the iconic image of the Plains Indian atop a horse was a recent and profound change in the native life, made possible by an ecological explosion of feral horses originating from Spanish settlements. The horse, along with the feral hog, were among the first exotic species to invade North America, and were as ecologically destructive as the many hundreds of exotic species which have followed them. Our continuing inability to address exotic species before they have a chance to invade an ecosystem—the most recent example being Asian carp—strongly suggests that despite 500 years of mistakes with invasive species, we really haven’t learned anything.
 
The same is true for our exploit-to-depletion approach to market harvest. Today, the remaining market harvest is primarily for ocean fish, some of which, like the North Atlantic cod, were pushed to commercial extinction within the last 20 years. Surely, by now we ought to know better. But Nicholls doesn’t think we do. In his conclusion he writes, “What we call today ‘environmental’ awareness is nothing new. We’ve seen people throughout the history of North America comment on the foolishness of the profligate use of resources and suggest proceeding with caution. Yet in every age their words went unheeded as unbridled exploitation bled dry one ecosystem after the other. Have we now reached a tipping point in our society? Is the groundswell great enough for our own culture to flip from one state to another—from squandering our extraordinary heritage to enlightened stewardship?” Don’t hold your breath.
 
A few years ago, I became acquainted with a group of conservationists who called themselves the Concerned Duck Hunters Panel. Nearly all were retired waterfowl biologists, widely acknowledged as experts and pioneers of modern waterfowl management. They were also old enough to have seen the last vestige of continental waterfowl abundance that still existed in the first half of the 20th century. Based on their accumulated knowledge and experience, the panel called upon today’s waterfowl managers to reduce bag limits so hunters kill fewer ducks, hopefully so a few more return to the nesting grounds the following spring. Despite their professional pedigrees, the Concerned Duck Hunters Panel was dismissed as a bunch of old fools by modern waterfowl managers, who continue to believe most ducks are too abundant to be harmed by hunting. Bag limits remain a generous six ducks a day based on that assumption. Some of those “old fools” are no longer with us. Perhaps it is best these lions of conservation—Art Hawkins, Frank Bellrose, Roger Holmes, Harvey Nelson and Tony Dean—did not see recent new reports that Minnesota’s 2009 duck harvest was one of the lowest in history, despite the high bag limits, and that the abundance of both ducks and hunters continues to decline. But I doubt the news would have surprised them. They were old enough to know we cannot change history, but we’re damned good at repeating it.
 
Airdate: July 30, 2010
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