The Silencing of Science: How a Farmer and a Dentist Teamed up To Decide the Fate of a Species

The Silencing of Science: How a Farmer and a Dentist Teamed up To Decide the Fate of a Species

Meera Subramanian: The Silencing of Science

Nixon would never have let this happen. Back when Tricky Dicky ruled, Americans had nearly annihilated such creatures as the bison, the peregrine falcon, and the bald eagle, but were making efforts to bring them all back. It was 1973 when Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act, crafted in a collaborative effort between scientists and government, with a hearty dose of lawyerly input. It was a monumental step for species survival, ensuring a place for the marginalized flora and fauna that were at risk of extinction as a ?consequence of economic growth and development untempered by adequate concern and conservation.? The year 1973 also marked the culmination of an era when conservatives could publicly support conservation without being vilified. The intent of the landmark law was that, once in place, decisions about listing?and delisting?species as endangered would be based on conservation science, not politics.

That all changed this month when Senator Jon Tester (D-MT), a music teacher turned farmer, and Representative Mike Simpson (R-ID), a dentist, placed a rider on the federal budget bill that removes wolves in Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, and Utah from the federal endangered species list. It also prohibits court challenges to the delisting decision. As a reminder, a rider is defined by the federal government as a ?nongermane amendment.? As the country battled for a budget bill that would keep the federal government operating, tagging on an eleven-line shotgun blast to the ESA seems nongermane, indeed.

This radical move will likely lead to renewed hunts of Canis lupus, like the ones that occurred in 2010 when the ESA was briefly lifted and 188 wolves were killed in Idaho alone, a quarter of the population there. And these kinds of numbers don?t reflect the shoot-shovel-shut up approach to wildlife management often practiced by individuals in the privacy of the wide-open western landscape.

Scientists have always struggled to guide the conversation around heated issues that touch on land, life, and livelihood. Hour-for-hour and dollar-for-dollar, the wolf has no doubt spent more time in American courtrooms than eviscerating tender cattle originally destined for our backyard barbeques. But until now, the recent story of the wolf has been a successful one. After Americans hunted them nearly to extinction, they were listed in 1973, and active reintroduction began fifteen years ago using Canadian stock. The howling hunters, which are highly evolved social pack animals, thrived under the protection of the ESA. So did the ecosystems they once again inhabited. After the apex predators were reintegrated, a cascade of environmental changes ensued, many unexpected. The wolf kept the grazing elk moving along, for example, which allowed for riparian areas around waterways to return, which brought back aspens and songbirds and cleaned the creeks and rivers that ran with cool mountain water. All because of the presence of one species.

A few numbers that seem to get lost in the shuffle: dogs kill five times more cattle and calves than wolves do in the United States, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service of the USDA. Respiratory infections kill 250 times more livestock than wolves. That ranchers lose less than .1 percent of their stock (4,400 animals out of more than 4 million) to wolves seems a small price to pay for a healthy intact ecosystem. That hunters have to draw on the dying art of tracking to bag elk that are now, thanks to the wolves, on the move seems like it should make the trophy head that much more valuable. I once visited the Starkey Experimental Forest in eastern Oregon, where scientists watched on monitors as radio-tagged ungulates easily eluded their GPS-fitted human stalkers?an indication of a hunting culture gone soft shooting from the comfort of truck cabs at prey that knows no other predator but the two-legged kind.

Some argue that conservation just isn?t worth the cost. The Northern Rockies contain, according to the US Fish & Wildlife Service, around 1,600 wolves, with only 111 breeding pairs. Australian mathematicians recently published a paper in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment assessing the SAFE (species’ ability to forestall extinction) index and came to the conclusion that any species with a population below 5,000 is not worth the cost of saving. It?s a cruel arithmetic, playing out in an era when humans dominate the biological narrative. The ethics of deep ecology, in which species have value in and of themselves, is still a fringe theory.

I?ll concede one flaw of the Endangered Species Act: its name draws too much focus to individual species. Now more than ever we need to be looking at how to save entire ecosystems and diverse habitats, so that the individual species contained within them can survive, not to mention adapt to the rapidly changing weather patterns we?re experiencing. As the American West suffers through an era of drought caused by a warming climate, wolves should be the least of ranchers? worries.

Biologists are getting waylaid in the protection of our country?s most persecuted species, and lawyers, judges, and ill-informed politicians have become the decision-makers in these scientific matters. So why not add another professional to the mix: the psychiatrist. The fear of wolves goes deep in human history, reaching back much farther than the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. But humans pose a far greater threat to wolves than the other way around. In one study, humans were shown to be responsible directly or indirectly for 70 percent of wolf deaths in one region in Minnesota. Wolves rarely attack humans.

Perhaps we need to collectively sit down with the head doctors and talk about our deepest, darkest fears. They could help walk us through the irrational underpinnings of our treatment of wolves, and we could learn to allow the canines to lope across our shared landscape. And maybe the diagnosis will be that it is not fear of death?of the animals we keep or our own important lives or the balance of our bank accounts?that drives our loathing of wolves, but merely the prospect of giving up our mantle as top dog in the ecosystem.

Image: a gray wolf in Yellowstone Park (Barry O’Neill/National Park Service/1996/Wiki. Com.)