The unintended consequences of micromanaging nature

We must tell our readers about the collateral damage of misguided attempts to manage nature more often than we would like.  We prefer positive stories, but in the hope of a better future we must also inform the public of the unintended consequences of the many projects that are killing one species of plant or animal based on the mistaken assumption that another plant or animal will benefit. 

Trumpeter swan by James Audubon
Trumpeter swan by James Audubon

In this case, a project sponsored by the Nature Conservancy decimated the population of rare Arctic grayling fish in Centennial Valley, Montana, by damming the streams to create ponds for the benefit of the equally rare trumpeter swan.  The grayling had spawned in those streams and the population plummeted when the streams were dammed. 

The Nature Conservancy scientist who was interviewed by National Public Radio for this story said, “There are lots of examples where we try something that sounds like a good idea [and it] turns out not to be that good of an idea.  Then [we] remedy it and—hopefully—never try it again.”    

Unfortunately, they ARE trying it again.  Now the scientists are trying to compensate for the damage to the grayling population by killing cutthroat trout that is considered a predator to the grayling.  The cutthroat is not native, so that also makes it a candidate for eradication.  It’s as though we are on a killing treadmill.  One mistake seems to lead to another. 

Stop and think before you shoot!

Cockatoo.  Creative Commons
Cockatoo. Creative Commons

A bird lover in Hawaii takes a more thoughtful approach to the suggestion that introduced cockatoos and African parrots should be shot, based on the assumption that they are competing with the dwindling population of native birds.  He points out that the native birds nest in the ground, while the cockatoos and parrots nest in cavities in the trees.  Most of the native birds are nectar eaters, while the cockatoos and parrots eat seeds and nuts.  So, he wonders if the introduced birds are really a threat to the native birds.

The exotic birds are either escaped pets or the descendents of them.  The author of the article urges pet owners to take care of their pets and make a permanent commitment to their care.  Releasing them into the forest is making them a target for people who think killing them would benefit other birds. 

The author is not opposed to killing non-native animals when absolutely necessary, but he is at least willing to carefully consider if it is necessary, in his opinion.   He is comfortable with the killing of rats, pigs, and feral cats, for example.

Million Trees takes this question a step further.  We don’t think humans should micromanage nature.  We don’t have enough information to presume to know better than nature what is best.  We also have our own anthropomorphic criteria for which species is more important than another.  Our judgment is self-serving and is not a substitute for the even-hand of nature.   Nature follows the simple rule of “survival of the fittest.”  Nature is as likely to save the lowly spider as it is to save the beautiful trumpeter swan.

A parable to illustrate the point

This parable, retold in Fanaticism of the Apocalypse (1) illustrates the futility of man’s attempt to control nature:

“Noah, as he is loading the animals onto the Ark, is alarmed by the large number of candidates.  Mammals, birds, marsupials, penguins, primates, and lizards have already gone on board.  The ass, the ox, the giraffe, the elk, the stag, the lion, and the cat urge the patriarch to raise the gangplank and close the hatches.  The boat is chock-full, the cedar hull is about to crack open, the Deluge is threatening.  Outside, a crowd of harmful or misshapen pests—cockroaches, toads, slugs, spiders—asks to be taken on.  The toad speaks on behalf of his unsightly comrades:  he pleads their cause with eloquence, pointing out to the Patriarch that they perform a useful function in nature.  In God’s design, nothing is ugly or repugnant:  everything is ingenious, even invertebrates, mollusks are necessary.  No one has the right to destroy these creatures of the Lord.  But Noah turns on his heel and decides to raise the anchor.  Then a cloud of insects and pests assails him:  fleas climb on his legs, crabs crawl in his pubic hair, lice swarm on his head, leeches, stinkbugs, and mosquitoes stick to his skin without him noticing them.  Snakes slip into his flowing hair, spiders take up residence in his beard.  That is how the whole bestiary was spared.”

We fiddle with nature at our own peril. 


(1)    Pascal Bruckner, The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse, Polity, May 2013

4 thoughts on “The unintended consequences of micromanaging nature”

  1. Interesting post, especially in light of the recent articles about the threats different successful gull populations in SF Bay Area present…

    It’s fascinating that humans see only problems when another species finds a way to thrive despite all humans do to be the only species that thrives…

    A couple points that need to be emphasized:

    1) There is almost nowhere on the planet that natural systems exist separate from human influence, which means there is near pure and total folly in the notion that humans should do nothing, that’s impossible. That’s not what humans do and that’s not what humans are here to learn…

    Webmaster: Yes, there are probably instances when even I would agree that something must be done. But it would be a rigorous test that would convince me that it is necessary. Most of what I see being done in our urban parks would not pass the test.

    2) Saying nature follows the law of “survival of the fittest” is a shallow western-minded human-centric absurdity… That notion discounts the fact that nature also follows the law of survival of the most cooperative, as well as survival of the most adaptive, as well as survival of species most willing to send and receive genetic adaptations across species, as well as so many other laws that we barely understand or are even aware of yet.

    3) Humans too often do horribly destructive things to life on earth by first saying that their ancestors did misguided things and now they intend to right that wrong. But too often humans again end up doing even more wrong. So we need to stop scapegoating our ancestors and start realizing how harmful we’re still being… We need to focus on what we can do that is generative rather than degenerative. And the only way to do it right is via the concept of adaptive management, which is an iterative process that constantly adjusts to feedback and constantly refines the effort to be less harmful and more beneficial as more information arises.

    The big question in all this is: how do we show/teach kindness, tolerance, compassion to earth and all the creatures that live on this planet? How do future human generations learn to love and nurture the land rather than ruin the land? That’s what we’re at the very beginning of… We have so much to learn, such a long way to go and the only way we’ll succeed is to be humble and gentle… Poison and destruction is never the end-all and be-all solution! We must learn to be the exact opposite of that.

  2. I agree. Humans have made most of the damage or caused other species to, such as introducing cats, which can kill 800 small animals a year. Humans should be VERY careful before next introducing, and to learn the facts.

    We’ve seen ridiculous comments that are easily disproved by our own observation, such as that no native animals use Eucalyptus, when there are photos of eagles, owls, hawks, etc. nesting in them, hummingbirds eating from them, etc.

    Most of the native Hawai’ian birds were killed by bird malaria brought by the mosquitos Europeans introduced. Can you imagine those islands without mosquitos? What a nightmare now. Some native species survive who are high enough that the mosquitos can’t reach that elevation. But many have died. So if beautiful birds exist who have been introduced, isn’t that wonderful, instead of Hawai’ian islands with no birds?

    Nativist attitudes against logic, common sense, and reality prove it is a cult. And it’s a cult which threatens our environment, native animals, and our parks.

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