Needlessly exterminating animals

As much as we dislike the destruction of plants and trees simply because they are not native, the extermination of animals is far more disturbing.  There are presently two such proposed projects in the news to which the public has reacted angrily.  We will start with the project in the San Francisco Bay Area which plans to kill ground squirrels and gophers in a public park in Berkeley.  In this case, the animals are native.  They will be killed because public land managers have decided they MIGHT be a problem in the future. 

The squirrels and gophers of Cesar Chavez Park in Berkeley

California Ground Squirrel at the Berkeley Marina.  Creative Commons - Benefactor 123
California Ground Squirrel at the Berkeley Marina. Creative Commons – Benefactor 123

Cesar Chavez Park is the former garbage dump of the city of Berkeley, built on landfill.  When the dump was closed in the 1990s, the garbage was not removed.  It was capped with clay which was intended to contain whatever toxins were in the garbage.  Then two feet of soil was put on top of the clay so that vegetation could be planted in the park.  Small animals moved into the park, as we should expect.

The population of squirrels and gophers is now considered too big by land managers.  Although there is no evidence that the burrows of the animals have penetrated the clay cap, the officials who are responsible for the water quality of the bay are apparently concerned that they MIGHT burrow through the clay cap:   “…they are getting perilously close to the clay cap that covers the landfill. If the rodents penetrate that barrier, dangerous toxins like gasoline, lead, iron, herbicides and pesticides, could leach into the bay. So the city needs to reduce the animal population to lessen the risk, according to city spokesman Matthai Chakko. ‘We haven’t had any of the materials inside the landfill escape into the bay and we don’t want that to happen,” said Chakko. “We are trying to solve a problem before it happens.’” (1)

The population explosion is being blamed on park visitors feeding the squirrels.  Squirrel-feeders have been interviewed by the media.  They defend their right to feed the squirrels, which is a source of pleasure for them.  It should not be too difficult to understand that many people prefer feeding squirrels to killing them.  (However, we do not encourage people to feed wildlife in public parks and open space because the animals usually pay the price.)

Some media sources also blame off-leash dogs for exacerbating the problem.  The San Francisco Chronicle claims that off-leash dogs dig into the animals’ burrows, making them larger.  There is a small, legal off-leash area in the center of the park.  We have walked around the perimeter of this park many times.  Although we have seen dogs being walked on-leash on the trail around the park, we have never seen an off-leash dog outside the legal off-leash area.  Another media source reports that most of the burrowing animals live on the outer edge of the park which is consistent with our observation.  Furthermore, making the burrows larger at the surface, doesn’t get them any closer to the clay cap two feet below the surface.  Therefore, the scenario imagined by the Chronicle is not consistent with the facts.  (1)

Action alert (update):  The Berkeley City Council will reconsider the extermination of squirrels and gophers at Cesar Chavez Park at their meeting on March 25, 2014.  Please come to speak for these animals.  Here is a link to an article in the Oakland Tribune with more information (scroll down to the second item in the article):

Scapegoating animals for problems we cause

This project is similar to many others to which we object:

  • There is no evidence that there actually IS a problem.  These animals should not be killed without such evidence.
  • IF there is a problem, it is one created by humans:  We should have predicted the presence of burrowing animals when we closed this dump.  An impenetrable cap on the garbage should have been installed.  If an impenetrable cap was not physically possible, the garbage should have been removed.  IF feeding the animals is contributing to the population surge, humans are the problem, not the animals.  We do not assume that feeding the animals is, in fact, contributing to the problem.  It sounds like more finger-pointing to us.  (However, we agree that people should not feed wildlife in public parks because the wildlife usually pays the price for the pleasure of humans.  We suggest that people channel that impulse into a sanctioned form of animal welfare such as volunteering in your local animal shelter or wildlife rescue organization.)
  • There is no evidence that dogs are contributing to the problem either.  They are yet another scapegoat for a problem created by humans….IF, in fact, there IS a problem.  
  • Humans have a very short-term perspective on nature.  We often perceive problems in nature that are short-term and we over-react to them because we have a desire to control nature.  In fact, surges in animal populations usually resolve themselves without our interference when the animals exhaust available resources.  Humans often do more harm than good when we attempt to control nature and these attempts are usually futile because nature is far more powerful than we are.
  • We should set priorities when we address environmental issues.  Untold thousands of chemicals are being drained into the bay every day according to the San Francisco Regional Water Quality Control Board:  “’However, there are a number of chemicals that are showing up not too far from levels of concern, and that’s the bad news,’ said Tom Mumley. assistant executive officer of the San Francisco Regional Water Qaulity Control Board,  ‘There’s a really big, long list of chemicals that we haven’t measured yet, or we don’t have good thresholds to interpret whether the concentrations out there are something to be alarmed about or not,’ said Jay Davis, a senior scientist at the San Francisco Estuary Institute. More than 100,000 chemicals are registered or approved for commercial use in the United States.” (2)  While we merrily pour toxic chemicals down our drains and spray our public lands with pesticides, does it make any sense to worry about the POSSIBILITY that a few squirrels could be burrowing into a former garbage dump?

Update March 27, 2014:  Berkeleyside (an excellent on-line news source for Berkeley) reports that the Berkeley City Council put the plan to kill ground squirrels and gophers at Cesar Chavez Park on hold indefinitely, pending further study.  Berkeleyside reports that the Water Quality Board notified the City Council in writing that they did NOT order Berkeley to kill the animals, contrary to the claims of the Berkeley officials proposing the plan.  There is absolutely NO doubt that this decision is a direct result of thousands of people contacting Berkeley to protest the plans.  It pays to speak up, folks!

The swans of New York

Mute Swan.  Creative Commons - Share Alike
Mute Swan. Creative Commons – Share Alike

The State of New York has announced its intention to exterminate all mute swans in the state.  The mute swans were introduced in the 1880s because at that time people thought them beautiful.  Now some people have apparently changed their minds.  People calling themselves bird-advocates have decided that because mute swans aren’t native to the United States, they must be killed.

According to an op-ed in the New York Times, this bizarre plan to kill this and other non-native species of birds originates with the Audubon Society and other organizations advocating on behalf of birds (apologies for the contradiction). They succeeded in revising the Migratory Bird Act in 2004, to remove protections from all non-native birds in the United States.  This policy was based on an ASSUMPTION that the mere existence of non-native birds is a threat to native birds.  Like all similar projects to exterminate a non-native species, the State of New York provided no evidence that the mute swans are a threat to native birds.  The proposal merely stated that the swans are “aggressive” and that they eat aquatic vegetation.

Since there are only about 2,200 mute swans in the State of New York, one wonders how much of a problem they could be.  They are called “invasive,” as are most non-native species, but their small population suggests this is an exaggeration.

The op-ed in the New York Times was written by Professor Hugh Raffles (New School).  Readers of Million Trees may remember him as the author of another eloquent op-ed about the fallacies of invasion biology using the American “melting pot” as a metaphor.

The comments on his op-ed about the swans are revealing.  There is almost no support for killing the swans.  Here is one of the few supporting comments from a typical nativist, using the usual arguments about how there MIGHT be a problem in the distant future:  “Not-so-weird” says A century is not nearly enough time for wetlands to adapt to the presence of a new species. Thousands or millions of years would be more appropriate. As we wait to see what happens, we could lose any number of native species whose ecosystem services we have yet to fully understand or appreciate. The science does not need to be complete for the safest, most responsible course of action to be removing mute swans from our wetlands in the most humane way possible.”    It’s difficult to imagine our environment thousands or millions years from now, but we doubt that mute swans will be a concern in the unlikely event that there will be humans around to worry about them.

Don’t we have enough problems?

There is no shortage of real, serious problems in our environment.  One wonders where our public servants find the time to dream up problems that don’t exist.  We suggest that they put their over-active imaginations to rest and focus on solving existing problems rather than fabricating them.  And while they’re at it, we would appreciate it if they would quit pointing fingers at animals when diagnosing problems most of which are caused by the actions of humans.


(1)    Frances Dinkelspiel, “Berkeley to kill squirrels, gophers to protect bay,” Berkeleyside, February 19, 2014

(2)     Stephanie Lee, “Report:  Some levels of chemicals in SF Bay near levels of concern,” San Francisco Chronicle, October 28, 2013

The Sierra Club redefines “recreation”

In the current edition of the newsletter of the local chapter of the Sierra Club, the Club explains why it doesn’t like the revised Recreation and Open Space Element (ROSE) of San Francisco’s General Plan.  The Club has a long list of complaints about the new ROSE, but the one that caught our eye was this particular criticism:

“The draft ROSE talks about the benefits of open space for physical fitness through exercise and recreation, but these one can do on city streets and in gyms.”

–          The Yodeler, June 29, 2011

In the same article, the Sierra Club redefines “recreation” as follows:

“…the draft [ROSE] neglects the values of respite, quiet contemplation, and undisturbed wildlife viewing… The document does not talk about the one thing that only parks can provide, the experience of nature.”  Ibid.

In other words, in the opinion of the Sierra Club, public parks are for the benefit of plants and animals.  The public is welcome to look at the plants and animals, so long as they do not disturb them in doing so.  However, if the public seeks more active forms of recreation, such as playing ball, hiking, or riding a bike, the Club invites them to take to the streets or join a gym.

Having debated park issues with the leadership of the Sierra Club many times and observing their advocacy closely, we are well aware of their rather narrow view of the purpose of parks.  However, we think it is unlikely that most Sierra Club members realize that their organization is actively trying to prevent all traditional forms of recreation in their parks.  We therefore shine a bright light on the role that the Sierra Club plays in turning urban parks into native plant museums.  In “Fortress Conservation:  The loss of recreational access” we described three specific examples of parks in the San Francisco Bay Area in which recreational access has been restricted as the result of advocacy and lawsuits by the Sierra Club and other organizations which share their view.

“Active” vs “Passive” Recreation

We were originally introduced to the Sierra Club’s objectives for our urban parks in the Bay Area with the terms, “active” and “passive” recreation.  The Sierra Club advocates for “passive” recreation, which it defined in its article about the ROSE as “respite, quiet contemplation, and undisturbed wildlife viewing.”

The Berkeley Meadow

We visited a park today which is an example of what the Sierra Club has in mind.  The 72-acre Berkeley Meadow at the foot of University Ave in Berkeley is one of many parks in the Bay Area that reflects the wishes of the Sierra Club.  The Berkeley Meadow is part of the Eastshore State Park that is owned by the State of California, but operated by East Bay Regional Park District.  The Berkeley Meadow was at one time part of the San Francisco Bay, until it was created with landfill and used as a city dump until the 1960s.  The East Bay Regional Park District “restored” the meadow over a period of 5 years at a cost of $6 million.  It is now a huge fenced pen with a fenced trail running diagonally through it.  Bicycles and dogs on leash are both prohibited from using this fenced path.  One wonders what harm could come to the plants and animals that reside on the other side of the fence.  The meadow is predominantly non-native annual grassland, with willows in wetter portions of the meadow and some coyote bush scrub in the grassland.  (see video cartoon about the Berkeley Meadow:  “Grandpa takes the kids to the plant zoo.”)

The Berkeley Meadow

Cesar Chavez Park due west of the Berkeley Meadow provides a multiuse contrast.  Cesar Chavez Park is a Berkeley city park, NOT a park owned by East Bay Regional Park District.  This 90-acre park provides a wide variety of recreational opportunities, including a popular kite-flying area, an off-leash dog park, a restricted “natural area” (predominantly non-native plants), and a fenced area in which burrowing owls nest half of the year.  The unfenced paths are used by bicycles, joggers, people walking, some with dogs on leash.  Cesar Chavez is a successful park, enjoyed by a wide variety of visitors every day.  The Sierra Club made every effort to prevent this multi-use park from accommodating all forms of “active” recreation.

Multiuse recreation at Cesar Chavez Park: a panda flying a kite

Environmentalism has been hijacked by extremists

Let us be perfectly clear about our opinion of “active” vs “passive” recreation.  We do not object to parks such as the Berkeley Meadow in which human access is severely restricted.  What we object to is that the Sierra Club wishes to turn all parks in the Bay Area into native plant and animal reserves in which humans are not welcome, except as passive observers.  This is an example of the extremism that has earned environmentalists the reputation of being unreasonable.

In 2004, the authors of the controversial paper entitled, “Death of Environmentalism” reported that “The number of Americans who agreed that, ‘Most of the people actively involved in environmental groups are extremists, not reasonable people,’ leapt from 32 percent in 1996 to 41 percent in 2000.”  Peter Kareiva, Chief Scientist of the Nature Conservancy, in his recent talk in San Francisco sponsored by the Long Now Foundation (a summary of this talk is available on the Save Sutro website), reported that over half of those surveyed in 2011 now agree that “environmental groups are extremists, not reasonable people.”  This loss of support for environmentalism is a great tragedy, for there is much legitimate work to be done by environmental organizations which are now distracted by tangential issues such as creating native plant museums in our urban parks.