Monday, June 29, 2009

Lessons from New Zealand: A Conservation Primer (Part 3 of 3)

Maungatautari Volcano

It also must be considered that new species colonize, and have colonized, regions or landmasses all the time, often leading to the demise of the previously dominant species. That is simply a fact of nature. In this case, we are the ones that facilitated this transport of new biota, so it is considered unnatural. This is to say that we are somehow distinct from the natural world, and most or all of our actions are not natural, which is a whole other debate altogether. Yet another consideration is that we are deciding how to restore these ecosystems and habitats into something more “natural” (define this term as you well). Once again this requires value judgments that are inevitably linked to human interest, simply because we are the ones making the decisions. Money pours in to save the oh-so-charming kiwi and the ever-intriguing tuatara, but what about those critters less likely to capture the public’s hearts, and dollars. Somehow we have convinced ourselves that we are doing the best thing for nature, that we know what is right. But are we not just chasing our tails? Will we not have to, ten years hence, treat these conservation practices, too, as blemishes on the well-intentioned conservation track record? All these questions, among countless others, were confronted and debated between us on our long bus rides, and it would be foolish to say that we came anywhere close to agreement. Yet, these are the questions conservation scientists and policy-makers grapple with every day.

Over the course of three months, we were able to witness the incredible success stories of conservation that have served as models for others throughout the world, but also those shocking blunders of conservation that seem all too ridiculous and avoidable in hindsight. As a case study, New Zealand provides perhaps the most extreme of examples due to its unique natural history. But the root of these debates is the same no matter how and where you approach them. We must take risks in order to act fast. Valued species and resources are not considered equal, ever. Priorities must be established, and sacrifices made. Just like the human interference in the past, and very much the present, that injured the natural balance and health of ecosystems, conservation in practice is just another form of manipulation. Yet, it is fueled by the intentions of restoring and protecting, with enough knowledge that things will truly be helped, and not further harmed. As with all endeavors, the money must come from somewhere, hopefully not undermining the cause.

All of our thoughts and questions found no conclusions or answers, probably because they would only result in yet another opinion or value judgment. And that is the basic principle of conservation. We often must react before it is too late. We would only hope that we would have a complete grasp on an issue, knowing the full effects of each potential course of action. But this is never so. This is not to say that we should do nothing and completely give up. However, all this must be considered. Perhaps we can someday rid conservation of the need to consider profits and other solely human-based regulating factors, so as to throw our full attention on nature itself. But in the end we are only humans, just one piece, one force of nature. As nature is certainly not static, we cannot truly know how things should be, and therefore find some perfect solution to the issue at hand.

I do not want it to seem as if we left completely jaded regarding conservation and environmental issues, returning broken-spirited and without hope for the future. This was simply a wake-up call, allowing us to realize the complexities of this art. Conservation is about much more than the small microcosm that is being considered. This dialogue must be continued no matter where we are and what is at stake. We also came out with a greater understanding of why things live where they do, and why this is important in understanding the past, present, and future biology of a place. I don’t think we could have learned the things we learned in any other place in the world. The most rewarding part being that this was not the end of our studies on conservation and biology, but clearly just the beginning as many of us continue our studies in these fields.

Posted by Kat Fiedler '11

Monday, June 8, 2009

Lessons from New Zealand: A Conservation Primer (Part 2 of 3)

A bait station.

The introduced mammals have thrived in their new habitats, as the rest of the biota simply had not evolved to have any defenses against these new creatures. As a result native bird and plant species are severely threatened, while introduced mammal populations and invasive plants are increasing exponentially. Flightless, and ignorant, birds have no chance in defending their nests or themselves. Native habitat is being taken over by the much more successful plants and, in terms of the logging industry, much more profitable introduced trees.

What came as a shock to us Northern hemisphere biology students was how much of New Zealand’s conservation practices involved directly killing the guilty species. Much of the country is covered with trap lines and bait stations full of poison pellets. Poison, manufactured under the name of 1080, is aerially distributed with the intent of killing the introduced mammals. This was a hard pill for me to swallow. It must be remembered that conservation is a reactionary science, in that we are constantly cleaning up some environmental problem, often of human origin.

Sometimes it may be deemed necessary to act before all the pieces of the puzzle are fully assessed. While the Department of Conservation (DOC) claims to have already investigated many of the affects of 1080 on native species and the soil it could leach into, they also admit that much of this research is ongoing and very much not complete. We were able to meet with many representatives from DOC, yet each time I was left not entirely convinced with their arguments. Much of these efforts were focused on the mainland where it is impossible to completely control an environment simply due to the fact that it is not isolated. Animals, and seeds, are free to disperse throughout these areas as they please. This process of population control is never-ending, in time and in funding requirements. Other efforts have been carried out on many of New Zealand’s surrounding islands where virtually all of the introduced species have been eliminated. This has allowed DOC and other conservation scientists to facilitate the recovery of native flora and reintroduce or transplant threatened species, such as the tuatara, the South Island robin, or the kiwi. DOC is certainly not void of success stories, but still has their hands full, if not overflowing.

The great internal debate concerning this form of conservation begins when one realizes the enormity of the introduced species problem. Even those scientists and conservation managers who have invested their life’s work in these problems admit that there is no end in sight. It is perhaps impossible to ever eliminate the threat of these species, let alone entire populations. So who are we, then, to go about killing these creatures that we introduced to somehow artificially sustain native populations? How long will this go on, or will we be able to even afford these methods? Furthermore, what damage is being done to the health of these ecosystems, as new chemicals and compounds leach into the soil, and are do the benefits outweigh the costs? Is any legitimate research even being done regarding these questions?

Posted by Kat Fiedler '11