Food for thought: Whose habitat?
Ever notice how often press releases, media commentators, nature writers, and environmental programs refer to how "we" are destroying or occupying, or fragmenting "their" (wolves, cougars, elephants, leopards, and a list too long to include here) habitat? The old saw usually goes "increasing human populations," "increasing development," "increasing roads," "increasing recreation," and a whole host of human-oriented "increases" are "destroying habitat," "increasing conflicts with (put your favorite critter here)," "destroying the ecosystem," and another long list, too big to include here. Nonsense.
Is New York City a despoiled habitat? Is Yellowstone? Is North Dakota? How about Texas, or the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio? Do condos destroy habitat? Does ranching or logging? Do wolves belong in my backyard, or does a golden retriever? Are Africans entitled to surroundings wherein their children are not eaten by leopards or crocodiles? How about African farmers, are they entitled to grow crops free of marauding elephants - like Nebraskans grow corn free of marauding buffalo? These questions represent human values and a human society that strives to manage its environment for human good.
In a dictatorship, the supreme leader and his cronies make the decisions about who lives where, who has what, and what animals are tolerated where. In socialist countries, the central government decides who lives where and how they can conduct themselves around animals. In both of these sorts of nations (the majority of the world), guns are restricted, and animal use, from hunting and trapping to predator control and the keeping of pets, are more and more restricted.
Internationally, the "developed nations" (western Europe, U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand) and selected nation allies of the moment (depending on the topic) steer U.N. policies to lock up lands from private ownership, and to circumscribe animal uses from hunting to jewelry manufacture.
Although the gap is narrowing, the United States leads the world as the historically most-free society, for people to live where they please and use animals, both wild and domestic, as they see fit. This has changed dramatically, as we have passed vast new powers for the central government (Endangered Species Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, Animal Welfare Act, Wilderness Act, and a growing Archive of Executive Orders), and added hundreds of thousands of acres of private property annually to a vast (+40% of the nation) Federal landholding estate to be non-managed by bureaucrats for any use, or even fire control.
I guess, if we asked a dictator, a socialist central committee, or a U.N. bureaucrat, they would say we "must save" this land, this critter, or these plants because a scientist says so, or he (the boss) thinks it important or their (the bosses') friends want it reserved. So, get off the land, stay out without permission, and you will suffer serious punishment if you are caught doing anything, because I (the boss) forbid it. Ancient chieftains, temple priests, emperors, kings, and nobles said the same thing, "we do it because we can, so you underlings do what you are told, or face the consequences." Actually, they are saying it is "their" habitat.
What does it mean when Americans say "those guys" are "living in," "destroying," or "fragmenting" some animal or plant's "habitat?" Are we to believe that "they, the critter, owns" the land? Are we to believe that "they" (the critter) have some prior claim on certain land? Are we to believe it is all right for Chicagoans to occupy the SW lakeshore of Lake Michigan, but somehow wrong for a rancher to earn a livelihood from growing cattle in Montana?
Does anyone seriously believe that some mix of plants, animals, or some species (wolves, cougars, elephants, suckers, etc.) "belong" somewhere that American citizens want to live, raise families, and civilize? Who really believes that only a certain mix of plants and animals (natives, Pre-Columbian, etc.) "belongs" on certain (rural, private, public, western, etc.) lands? Does any American countenance government (any government, from dictatorships to the U.N.) continually buying more, and more, private property, declaring private property off limits to certain uses that are not PUBLIC uses, and then not compensating owners for it, as required in our Constitution? Does any American support using the power of government to eliminate ranching, logging, public land access, whaling, sealing, pet ownership, and on, and on?
Every square inch of the earth is man's habitat. We have always - and ever more so today - knowingly shared it with plants and animals, in numbers and distributions that best supported our societies. When wolves, tigers, or cougars are killing people, we remove them from areas of conflict to protect humans, their families, and enterprises. When buffalo or elephants eat up our landscape, destroy our crops, trample our children, or generally cause us serious problems, we either remove them from areas of conflict, or reduce their numbers to tolerable levels. When whales or seals depress fisheries that we depend on for food, we reduce their numbers, or occurrence in certain areas, to allow fisheries to recover.
In a free society, with knowledgeable citizens, this is understood, achievable, and proven to build a stronger nation. The history of the United States demonstrates that wildlife hunted, trapped, and fished for by EVERYONE for centuries results in more wildlife, more enterprise, more habitat, and happier citizens than what we have seen in England, or France, with elites-only having such access or in Russia, China, Cambodia, or Zimbabwe, where only the powerful can access land or weapons or wildlife (where as a result, wildlife or public land has little value.)
So, don't buy the stuff about us being in "their" habitat. They are, and always have been, in "our" habitat. They have, and always will exist, at our sufferance as societies change and evolve. As we extend suburbs, or find excessive rates of predation on stock or dogs, build cabins in wild areas, experience attacks on campers, or others, we must make decisions. The decisions must always recognize the simple fact that "they" are where "we" want to be. The decision may be to restrict human access, or permit more hunting or trapping to reduce animal presence in that area, or it may be to permit more citizen controls of the animals when such animals, threaten them or their livelihood.
There should be no doubt that wolves, cougars, or bears no more belong in suburbs or yards than elephants belong in African fields, or crocodiles belong where African women and children must get water or bathe. They might be tolerated in lower numbers and distributions, if they generate local revenue and national revenue, but when they are only a source of loss, their days are numbered, no matter how we tout current laws or policies.
It is only through our informed knowledge and our sufferance in a rich society, where such animals are valued, that we preserve the biodiversity and biological richness we have come to appreciate. It is sad, but true, that the short term, feel-good approach that Wilderness is sacred, and humans have less right to certain areas, than say, a wolf or an elephant, may get radical changes and quick progress for environmental and animal rights agendas today. In the long run however, the practical wisdom of our forefathers and the growing negative experiences with thinking of "us" in "their" habitat will eliminate the value of all animals, and the backlash will be hard to prevent from swinging too far back in the other direction.
Managing our environment is an important and difficult job. Reducing it to the principles of tinhorn dictators or pagan priests, by describing humans as less valuable than plants or animals, is unworthy and unjustified, in a society of free and educated people.
Jim Beers is a retired Refuge Manager, Special Agent, & Wildlife
Biologist U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
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