Magazine article American Forests

The Species You Save May Be Your Own

Magazine article American Forests

The Species You Save May Be Your Own

Article excerpt

We humans are crowding other creatures off this planet at the rate of one a day--at inestimable risk to our own future.

For centuries the sharp bite of late autumn prodded grizzly bears of the Great Plains up the spires of the Rocky Mountain front. In the packed snow of wind-blasted slopes they clawed out dens and slept away the winter. Fat and sluggish from a diet of choke cherries, buffalo berries, and pine nuts when they entered, they were lean engines of fury, ignited by hunger, when they emerged in spring. Months of abstinence had gnawed to the edge of their flesh, and it was flesh they craved to make up the loss. Any living animal in their path, including their smaller kin the black bear, could be smacked down and devoured if caught.

Fortunately, during their time of carnivorous appetite in spring, sustenance often awaited them in cool storage. Emerging from the snow were carcasses of elk, deer, and bison that had failed to survive the long winter. Desperate hunger abated, the bears took up residence in the lowlands, munching on salads of cow parsnip and angelica, sometimes even grazing placidly on grass within sight of hoofed neighbors.

Eventually a new and very different neighbor stepped into the annual routine of the grizzly bear and changed life on the Great Plains forever. People came with ranches and towns and replaced the elk and buffalo with cattle. The griz, a voracious beast of uncertain temperament and awesome weaponry, found little place in the lives of the newcomers and was no match for repeating rifles, traps, and poison. The ambling monarch became the trespasser, feared and unwanted.

Although estimates of the bear's population in Alaska today range up to 42,000, by 1991 only 700-900 grizzlies survived in the lower states of Wyoming, Idaho, Washington, and Montana. Especially at the point where the western mountains meet the midcontinental prairie, the grizzly seemed destined for disappearance, until a domain was set aside where the great bear remains king. In 1978 The Nature Conservancy bought the first of 18,000 acres of prime grizzly habitat on the eastern front of the Rockies. The property now known as Pine Butte Preserve begins in meadows and willow thickets of the plains of western Montana, climbs rounded foothills covered with spruce and aspen, and leads to steep crags owned by the Bureau of Land Management. The Conservancy and BLM properties, plus land owned by the Montana Fish and Game Department, total some 40,000 acres of prime grizzly country.

The shrunken realm of the western grizzly is a dramatic and perhaps overstated example of what is happening to millions of species on this planet. In the environmental renaissance of the 1990s, millions of people fret over the possible disappearance of the grizzly bear. Most of them may not realize that setting aside a block of woods to save it does not fit the mountain-prairie routine of old silvertip, whose lowland haunts are now coveted by farmers and ranchers. Salvation for the largest carnivore in North America requires plucking out a sizable piece of the bear's original home and leaving it intact.

So it is with millions of species--most of them much less imposing than the grizzly--that are being crowded off this planet.

We of homo sapiens, now dominant on the earth after thousands of years as an intelligent but somewhat puny resident, have proven ourselves poor stewards. Squandering our inheritance before it has been fully appraised, we wipe out species at random without even knowing how many species exist. Estimates of the total plants and animals that share space with us range from five million to 30 million. At present rates of destruction, a quarter of them may be gone in the next 25 years.

As other species plummet, our own is in astronomical rise. It took homo sapiens thousands of years to reach a population at the birth of Christ that was less than that of the United States today. …

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