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. 

Conference of the California Native Plant Society

In January 2015, the California Native Plant Society (CNPS) celebrated its 50th anniversary by holding a gigantic conference.  About 700-1,000 people attended.  There were several hundred short presentations and many posters describing research and “restoration” projects.  The abstracts of these presentations are available on the CNPS website.  We are publishing a brief description of a few of the presentations sent to us by one of our readers who attended the conference.  We publish with permission but without attribution, on request.  We have added a few edits in brackets and italics as well as a few links to relevant articles on Million Trees.

I was very impressed with the quality of the presentations at the CNPS conference.  Some were given by academic scientists or their graduate students. Many were given by land managers and managers of “restoration” projects.  There were about 225 presentations in 5 simultaneous sessions, so it was possible to hear only about 45 of them. There were also many short “lightning” presentations and nearly 50 posters.  Please consider this an impression of the conference, rather than a comprehensive report.

Michael Soulé was the opening speaker.  You might recognize his name as one of the proponents of invasion biology who is angry about growing acceptance of “novel ecosystems” and the ecological functions they perform.  [Million Trees has posted articles about this debate among academic scientists.  Soulé is one of the invasion biologists who demanded that the Nature Conservancy abandon their support for novel ecosystems.]   His objection to any acceptance of non-native plants was the main focus of his presentation.  He closed by saying that he “cannot live” without wild nature.  Since his definition of “nature” seems to exclude non-native plants, one wonders how he will manage to survive.   Perhaps he lives in an alternate universe populated solely by native plants.

Trees in Paradise, by Jared Farmer
Trees in Paradise, by Jared Farmer

Jared Farmer was the speaker at the conference dinner.  His subject was the history of eucalyptus in California.  His presentation was similar to his treatment of the subject in his book, Trees in Paradise.  [Million Trees has posted articles about Farmer’s book.]  Like his book, his presentation was even-handed in its treatment of eucalyptus.  That enraged the audience, which booed every time he said something positive about eucalyptus.  One wonders why he was invited to speak to this audience.  Were the organizers of the conference interested in promoting a more balanced view of eucalyptus?  Or did they just want a provocative speaker to wake up a sleepy audience after hours of a fund-raising auction?

Many of the presentations were surprisingly frank about the difficulties experienced by “restoration” projects.  CNPS deserves credit for inviting speakers who described some stunning failures of their effort to “restore” native landscapes.  I’ll describe just a few of the themes of speakers I heard.

San Francisco’s Public Utilities Commission

I was surprised to learn that San Francisco’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC) is heavily engaged in native plant “restorations.”  The PUC is responsible for managing thousands of acres of open space in the watershed that supplies San Francisco’s drinking water.  Common sense suggests that the PUC’s top priority would be the purity and safety of the water supply.  The PUC presentations at the conference suggest otherwise.  The PUC’s commitment to native plant “restorations” seems to trump the goal of clean water.

The PUC attempted to “restore” 100 acres of wetland and riparian habitat in San Mateo, Alameda, and Santa Clara counties by planting over 500,000 native plants, obtained from several different nurseries.  They claim to have followed a strict protocol which theoretically should have prevented the introduction of diseased plants.  Their protocol obviously failed.  The fact that many of the plants were infected with Phytophthora was not discovered until they were planted in the ground.  Phytophthora is the pathogen that is causing Sudden Oak Death.  The PUC is now faced with the difficult—if not impossible—task of trying to contain the spread of a fatal pathogen for which there is no known cure.

This project was funded by a “mitigation” grant for capital projects elsewhere in San Francisco.  Environmental laws require the builders of new development to “mitigate” for the impact they have on the environment by funding projects elsewhere, which are considered beneficial to the environment.  This often looks like legalized extortion to me.  It also increases the cost of infrastructure improvements, which limits the number of improvements we can make.  In this case, there clearly was no benefit to the environment.  It was both money down the drain and a poke in the environment’s eye.

As pointless as that project seemed, the other project presented by the PUC seemed even more pointless.  They presented a poster describing an experiment intended to determine the most effective application method and type of herbicide to eradicate coyote brush.  They used several different methods and types of herbicide, including Garlon (triclopyr) [which is known to be very toxic to aquatic life] and Milestone (aminopyralid) [which is banned in the State of New York because it is persistent and very mobile in the soil].

Detail of poster about PUC project, CNPS Conference
Detail of poster about PUC project, CNPS Conference

As you know, coyote brush is a native plant, so one wonders why it was necessary to eradicate it.  According to PUC’s poster, it’s another example of trying to prevent natural succession from grassland to scrub.  You might ask why the PUC is obligated to maintain grassland?  You might also ask how the PUC can justify using toxic herbicides in our watershed?  I can’t answer those questions.  It doesn’t make sense to me.

San Bruno Mountain

Mission Blue butterfly. Wikimedia Commons
Mission Blue butterfly. Wikimedia Commons

There was also a discouraging presentation by the folks who have been engaged in the effort to “restore” San Bruno Mountain in order to preserve and maintain a population of several species of rare butterflies, including the endangered Mission Blue butterfly.  This project officially began 32 years ago when the Habitat Conservation Plan was created by federal environmental protection laws.  The goal was to restore native grassland required by the rare butterflies.  The speaker said this goal remains largely unfulfilled.  As for the butterflies, their current status is largely unknown because monitoring efforts are not sufficient to determine the size of the population.

While non-native plants considered “invasive” are a part of the problem in achieving the goal of this project, the biggest problem is, in fact, a native plant.  Once again, natural succession from grassland to native scrub, dominated by coyote brush, is the main reason why grassland continues to shrink on San Bruno Mountain:

“Although the last mapping effort in 2004 reported 1296 acres of grassland, we believe that many of these areas are in imminent threat of scrub encroachment and could be converted to scrub after a good coyote brush recruitment year. Large patches of contiguous grassland with less than 2% scrub cover are quickly vanishing…Baccharis pilularis (coyote brush) accounts for the majority of the scrub encroachment observed on San Bruno. It seems to follow the well documented pattern of episodic establishment in wet seasons when roots can more quickly tap into needed soil water. Once seedlings have survived the first critical year, mortality drops quickly and full establishment plays out over the next 5-7 years (Williams et al. 1987). During this process of establishment, grassland resources decline and eventually disappear. Soil changes such as increased nitrogen and allelopathic compounds often follow scrub encroachment (Zavaleta and Kettley 2006, Weidenhamer and Callaway 2010) reducing the ability of grasslands to successfully re-establish without an intermediate disturbance such as a fire or intensive browsing (Hobbs and Mooney 1986).” (1)

San Bruno Mountain from Daly City. Wikimedia Commons
San Bruno Mountain from Daly City. Wikimedia Commons

It’s seems almost comic that when all is said and done, the main threat to native grassland “restoration” is apparently a native plant that is just doing what comes naturally…”invading” grassland in the absence of fire or grazing.

Hybridization:  Friend or foe?

Dieteria canescens variety canescens, native to Wyoming and other western states. Photo by Stephen Perry.
Dieteria canescens variety canescens, native to Wyoming. Photo by Stephen Perry.

I also attended the presentation of a native plant advocate from Mammoth Lake, on the eastern side of the Sierras.  She is engaged in a futile crusade to prevent the hybridization of a new plant, which she considers non-native, with a closely related native plant.  When this new plant arrived in her neighborhood, she recognized that it was different, but she was unable to identify it.  It wasn’t easy to find someone who could identify it.  Eventually, she found a botanist in Wyoming (where it is native) who was able to tell her that the new plant is a variety of a plant that is native at Mammoth Lake.  These plants are in the aster family.  The native is Dieteria canescens.  The new plant considered a non-native invader is Dieteria canescens var. canescens.  In other words, they are the same species!

From a horticultural standpoint, the new plant is superior to the native in every way: it is a bigger plant with more flowers; the flowers are bigger with more rays; the flowers are a deeper color.  So, why must it be eradicated?  Because native plant advocates fear that it will hybridize with the native aster and “swamp” it genetically, i.e., wipe it out.  Would that be such a terrible thing?  That is a matter of opinion.

Dieteria canescens, native to Mammoth Lake. Photo by Steve Mason
Dieteria canescens, native to Mammoth Lake. Photo by Steve Mason

One person in the audience asked why the new plant was not being accepted as an adaptation to climate change that would probably increase the likelihood of the survival of the species.  The speaker’s answer was that she could not accept the loss of the variety she considers native.  Another person in the audience asked this rhetorical question:  “What is our narrative here?  How can we expect the public to understand that it is necessary to eradicate a plant that is the same species?” The speaker agreed that it is not an easy sell.  I was encouraged by these questions.  They seem to be a glimmer of common sense.  I hope they are prophetic of the future of the native plant movement.

On that happy note, I close with an invitation to visit the CNPS website to read the abstracts of the hundreds of posters and presentations at this excellent conference.

  1. “Assessment of the past 30 years of habitat management and covered species monitoring efforts associated with the San Bruno Mountain Habitat Conservation Plan (Draft),” Creekside Science, October 21, 2014.