God knows where the wild creatures belong

Published February 1, 2001

Introductions of new species or restoration efforts can be construed as quite presumptuous. Even though the animals in question may be released on public lands or private holdings with the owner’s permission, populations will spread into adjacent private lands, if the undertaking is successful.

Many people object, and rightly so, to having someone’s domesticated dog wander onto their property. Yet the rules change if the offending species is wild and happens to be labeled endangered. If the landowner has the audacity to destroy an animal for his safety or to protect property, he can be expected to pay a stiff fine and face sentencing.

Another excuse for so-called restoration efforts is that they are justified anywhere the species once occurred. This might be acceptable if historical records were reliable and the Earth was in a static state. However, scientific attention to wildlife is relatively new, and past occurrence and range documentation can be scanty. The Earth is highly dynamic, with ecosystems in a constant state of flux. Wildlife species come and wildlife species go. This has been happening for eons.

Social engineering with wolves

The gray wolf appears to be the most popular candidate for such social engineering. One of the excuses given is that the species is endangered or threatened. This is difficult to swallow when there are an estimated 60,000 individuals in Canada, 7,000 in Alaska, and 2,000 in Montana, among other locations in North America. When other parts of the world are thrown in, the abundance of Canis lupus is even more impressive: 2,000 in Spain, more than 1,000 each in Afghanistan and Iran, and thousands in Russia and the former Soviet Republics.

In any deliberations concerning the status of wildlife species, it must be remembered that technically speaking endangered means threatened with extinction from the planet Earth. Unfortunately, there are those who delight in twisting definitions to their own liking. An ultra-liberal interpretation would allow any species to be put in the “endangered” category when it occurs on marginal or sub-marginal range.

The release of wolves imported from Canada into Yellowstone Park has attracted much media attention and apparently has great public appeal. Tourists delight in observing packs hunting in broad daylight. But this certainly does not suggest normal behavior for a truly wild species.

And so questions arise as to behavioral changes resulting from handling by humans, being held in captivity, artificial feeding, and over-protection. Most wild animals are readily conditioned to such treatment. The denning of gray wolves in peoples’ backyards in Italy illustrates the point.

Such encouragement of domestic traits is highly undesirable. Wild animals, as the name implies, should be wild.

States playing God, too

In New York State there has been considerable dabbling in restoration. Thousands of dollars were spent on a study to assess the feasibility of restoring moose in the Adirondacks. Fortunately, the study concluded that the release of transplants was not feasible or justified at the time.

There are a few moose in the Adirondacks, and each year some wander in from northern New England. When the time comes there will be viable populations. What’s the hurry?

A few years ago, someone had the bright idea to reestablish lynx in the spruce-fir country of the Adirondack High Peaks. Participant lynx were obtained from the northen part of British Columbia, physiographically very distinct from the Adirondacks. The kidnaped lynx immediately fled their new home, with animals recovered from as far away as Pennsylvania and New Hampshire. Obviously, they knew they did not belong in the Adirondacks.

More recently, a project was launched to establish river otter populations in west central New York. It was felt that otters “belong” there. One must wonder if the staff involved reviewed the literature and consulted experts to determine what constituted the otters’ prime range, and to ask why they were not naturally present in west central New York if in fact they “belong” there. Otters are abundant in other areas of the state, and they are decidedly nomadic. They tend to figure out on their own where they “belong.” Maybe they know something about west central New York that the managers do not.

Many northeastern states have been involved in wild turkey restoration efforts. Birds have been trapped in areas with high population densities and transferred to areas where they had not yet become established. This, however, was being done at a time when much of the Northeast was reverting to pre-Revolutionary conditions, with buildups in populations of wildlife species that thrive in forests. The range of species such as turkey, black bear, and fisher continues to expand. If this is occurring naturally, why should man interfere?

Nuisance species, and worse

One of the most serious blunders of the wildlife profession involved efforts to increase the numbers of Canada geese. Game farm birds were released and decoy flocks established to lure in wild birds. The program was very successful in terms of numbers, but the evolution of a new breed of problem geese is another matter.

The new geese defy the rules of nature with respect to where they live and breed; they congregate in golf courses and parks, where they destroy vegetation and their feces pollute water supplies; to put it bluntly, they are a nuisance. Unfortunately, the thrill of seeing and hearing the real geese flying north in the spring and south in the fall has been greatly diminished.

Leave wildlife alone

America is a great country with a remarkably wide range of physiographic features–land forms, soils, and climate–which in turn provide for a tremendous variety of flora and fauna. This variety helps make this land such an intriguing entity.

The wildlife manager is in a very enviable position. It is not necessary for him to house or feed the wild creatures that are residents. He can, and should, direct his attention to reaping the many benefits that the bountiful wildlife resource has to offer. Keeping abreast of all the native species and their relationship to the environment should be a full-time job.

Why, then, is there such a desire on the part of many members of the wildlife profession to take the individuals of certain species of wildlife away from their homes and families and translocate them to an unfamiliar locale? Is there any earthly reason for such efforts? Are they not content with the existing bonanza? At times it appears the manager believes his job is to do what he considers spectacular, create a carnival-like atmosphere, or to take God’s place.

The kidnap and exile of wild animals has been going on for years, often with dire consequences with respect to both the natural world and man’s interests. Chances are, if the victims were able to make a choice, they would opt to stay at home with their families.

Nathaniel R. Dickinson recently retired from a35-year career in wildlife management, including 21 years with the New York State Conservation Department.