Michael Soulé: The consequences of crisis conservation

Recently published Beloved Beasts is a collection of brief biographies of major figures in conservation, starting with Carl Linnaeus, the creator of the system of classifying plant and animal species in the 18th Century that is still used today.  I was most interested in the chapter about Michael Soulé because I knew the least about him.  I heard Soulé speak at the California Native Plant Society conference in 2015.  He was very angry about the criticism of invasion biology that had recently emerged and was getting louder.  He wasn’t having it!

Daniel Simberloff is an ally of Michael Soulé’s. This is Simberloff’s rogues gallery of critics of invasion biology shown at the most recent conference of the California Invasive Plant Council in October 2020. The chorus of critics is bigger than it was in 2015 when Soulé spoke to the California Native Plant Society.

Beloved Beasts explained that Soulé was one of the first academic scientists to engage in political activism in support of his beliefs about conservation and he was an active participant in the major turning points in conservation science and practice.  His approach was unique at the time because data and analysis took a back seat to what he called “crisis conservation.”  Most academic scientists are reluctant to take their knowledge into the realm of public policy.  As a student of Paul Ehrlich, the author of Population Bomb, Soulé was a member of the doom and gloom crowd.  He and his colleagues believed that human population was devouring the planet.  They said we can’t wait for careful analysis, we must act.

Crisis Conservation

Crisis conservation requires a top-down strategy.  The “experts” want the authority to dictate conservation strategies so they can be implemented quickly without the interference of the public who is considered the source of environmental problems, not the solution.  I encountered this attitude over 20 years ago when I objected to plans to transform the public parks of San Francisco into native plant gardens in which the public was not welcome.  In a heated debate over the 700-page plan for this transformation, the leading light of the native plant movement in San Francisco admitted that he had not read the plan and did not intend to read it.  He said, “We know what needs to be done and we just want to be left alone to do it.” He was as angry about the public’s interference as Michael Soulé was about other academic scientists questioning his opinion that non-native plants and animals must be eradicated.

The author of Beloved Beasts explains the disadvantages of the top down approach to conservation in a chapter about conservation projects in Namibia.  The goal of these projects is to preserve wildlife, including critically endangered animals such as rhinos.  Initially, protected areas were created that excluded indigenous people and rangers were hired to patrol and enforce prohibitions against hunting.  It quickly became apparent that the people who lived there could not be prevented from hunting, particularly during extreme droughts in which starvation was the only alternative to hunting.  A handful of rangers were no match for a much larger population of residents who were more familiar with the land and the animals living there. 

Over time, project leaders realized that a new strategy was needed that would include the participation and accommodation of the people.  The residents were given the authority to organize themselves into community conservation groups that set hunting quotas and enforced them themselves.  Cooperative relationships with hunting tourism organizations provided revenue to the residents to compensate them for the loss of some of the food they had hunted in the past.  These conservations groups were possible because indigenous people usually care as much about wild animals as foreign visitors do. 

The tragedy of the commons

The narrative of the tragedy of the commons was central to the beliefs of Soulé and his allies and it supported their authoritarian approach to conservation projects.  The tragedy of the commons assumes that a shared resource will be depleted by its users absent legal regulation and enforcement.  As popularized by Garrett Hardin in 1968, “Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons.  Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”  That viewpoint justifies authoritarian control over the people who share a resource, who are presumed to be irresponsible users of the resource.

Community conservation projects in Namibia are not consistent with the dire predictions of the tragedy of the commons because the indigenous people cared as much about the wild animals as the foreign visitors of the animals.  Many examples have existed and still do exist where members of a community with regulated access to a common resource co-operate to exploit those resources prudently without collapse. Elinor Ostrom was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economic Science for demonstrating this concept in her book Governing the Commons, which included examples of how local communities were able to do this without top-down regulations or privatization.

Elinor Ostrom had a unique understanding of the complexity of human society and she was deeply suspicious of conservation strategies portrayed as a magic bullet.  According to Beloved Beasts, “She knew how corrosive panaceas could be; all her data could not dislodge Hardin’s metaphor from the public imagination, and the tragedy of the commons remains a powerful panacea for optimism.”  Beloved Beasts endorses Ostrom’s viewpoint:  “The great challenge of conservation is to sustain complexity, in its many forms, and by doing so protect the possibility of a future for all life on earth.  And for that, there are no panaceas.”

At the core of the native plant movement is the mistaken belief that the existence of non-native plants is the sole obstacle to the survival of native plants.  This is an oversimplification of complex ecosystems that are undergoing rapid change and are evolving and adapting to those changes.  Eradicating non-native plants and animals is not a panacea.  In fact, in many cases futile attempts at eradication are doing far more harm than good. 

Unintended Consequences

The unintended consequences of many conservation projects are the cost of the top-down strategies used to design the projects.  The “experts” frequently do not realize the limits of their knowledge. The “crisis” mentality prevents the careful analysis needed to prevent disastrous outcomes.

green crab

A failed effort to eradicate green crabs in a lagoon in Marin County is a case in point.  After years of killing adult green crabs, the total crab population exploded to 30 times its original size.  The failure of the project was studied by scientists who were not responsible for the original project.  They knew that adult crabs eat their young.  When the adults were killed, the unchecked population of young crabs exploded.  Genetic studies also determined that the green crabs in the lagoon are related and connected to green crab populations in adjacent bodies of water.  The green crab population in the Bay Area is a regional, not a local issue.  Taking a longer view of the issue also revealed fluctuations in the population over the long-term, suggesting that a crisis response is inappropriate over time.  Such fluctuations in abundance are common in nature.  The second team of scientists recommended a new, much less aggressive management approach that aims to keep the population below 40% capacity.

The professor and ecologist who revised the strategy explained what he learned from the experience:  “A failure in science often leads to unexpected directions. We slapped our foreheads at the time, but with thought and understanding, it’s told us a lot about what we shouldn’t be doing and provided a way forward for us. The world should get less focused on total eradication and work toward functional eradication.”

Sacrificing common animals in service of rare animals

Crisis conservation is committed to preserving species rather than individual animals.  Those who subscribe to that agenda are willing to sacrifice individual lives. For example, native barred owls are being shot because they are perceived to be competitors of rare spotted owls.  We are sacrificing common animals to save rare animals. 

Farallon Islands, NOAA. Click on the picture to see a brief video about the Farallons eradication project and the email address of the California Coastal Commission to comment on the project.

A proposed project on the Farallon Islands is an example of a project that will sacrifice hundreds of individual birds and marine mammals based on the belief that one species of rare sea bird will benefit.  The project will aerial drop 1.5 tons of rodenticide on the Farallon Islands with the intention of killing mice.  The mice don’t eat birds or chicks, but they are the preferred prey of a small population of burrowing owls who eat chicks of the rare sea bird.  The project claims that the burrowing owls won’t visit the Farallons if the mice are eradicated.  The project admits that there will be “collateral” damage from the rodenticide that is likely to be eaten by hundreds of non-target birds and marine mammals.  This loss seems worthwhile to the promoters of this project.  It seems entirely unjustified to me and many others. 

The message of Beloved Beasts

Beloved Beasts makes a strong case for a conservation strategy that considers the needs of humans and values the lives of individual animals.  Such a strategy requires greater appreciation of the complexity of nature and animal societies, including human society.  It is suspicious of simple solutions that often have unintended consequences.  For all these reasons Beloved Beasts is entirely consistent with the mission of Conservation Sense and Nonsense.  I recommend it to you with enthusiasm.