Saturday, February 11, 2012

Horning in on the Natural World

Today on NPR I heard something that crystallized where we stand in a world we have sought and obtained some control over the natural world. Okay, it is nice not to be as vulnerable as we used to be to weather, fire, predators, and the like, but think what the implications of this really are.
Somewhere (I didn't catch the location), there is a rare variety of warbler that inhabits a particular woodland, and that place only. It was declining rapidly, so the Forest Service did some research some years back and found that cowbirds, those parasitic creatures that lay eggs in other bird's nest and push out the eggs of the bird who made the nest in the first place, were to blame for the decline. So the forest service began smothering cowbirds in large numbers.
That helped a little. The population of the warblers didn't fall, but it didn't rise either. So the Forest Service realized that the problem was with the ecosystem itself. The warbler lived in a forest that would naturally burn yearly, causing new trees to come up following the fires. But humans had been so effective in preventing forest fires that now there were old trees only in the forest. So the warblers declined.
The Forest Service, sure in its ability to play God, or at least Nature, lit a "controlled burn," but it had been so many years since there had been a fire that there was a lot of fuel there. Thousands of acres burned, and a person died, causing local residents to turn against the Forest Service.
But odd thing... it worked. After the trees began to grow back, the warblers flourished! However, the Forest Service now has to keep killing cowbirds and burning the forest in a controlled way indefinitely in order to preserve the species and the ecosystem.
The people living in the area asked whether it was all worth it. Was a species worth a man's life? It isn't such an easy question to answer, is it?

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