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Mother Nature or Nurture? 

The question of whether to begin saving creatures and habitats from climate change

Wednesday, Jul 4 2007
Russ Bradley spends summers on the craggy guano-strewn paradise at the far western edge of San Francisco's city limits, poking about in a rain slicker and a hard hat worn to protect against dive-bombing mother fowl. He is seeking signs of life.

One might expect this to be easy, given the hundreds of thousands of common murre, ashy storm petrel, Brandt's cormorant, Western gull, Leach's storm petrel, double-crested cormorant, black oystercatcher, glaucous-winged gull, pigeon guillemot, rhinocerous auklet, tufted puffin, bald eagle, peregrine falcon, and Cassin's auklet that love to summer on the Farallon Islands, 27 miles off San Francisco's coast, but officially within the city's borders.

Somehow during the past three years, however, as Bradley has completed his rounds checking in on nesting sites of the black, burrow-nesting Cassin's auklet, he's found abandoned eggs; dead, black cue-ball-sized chicks; and skinny, faltering fledglings.

"In 2005 we saw a complete breeding failure. It was because of strange weather, a strange interruption of the food supply. They abandoned their eggs. They abandoned their nesting habitats after two weeks," says Bradley, a research biologist with PRBO Conservation Science, a nonprofit that for 40 years has been counting and observing the hundreds of thousands of birds that nest yearly on the Farallons.

The following year, these hermetic water birds suffered a similar wipeout.

"Most of the chicks died," Bradley said. "It set off a warning bell that this was as complete a failure response as we'd ever seen before. And we'd been following this species for 35 years."

By late June 2007, the Cassin's auklets appeared to have recovered, but only barely.

"It's shaping up to be a fairly poor reproductive year," Bradley says. "It's a very unique thing we're seeing with this species. It seems to be linked to the krill."

Krill are the tiny shrimp-like creatures that the Cassin's auklets scoop into their beaks during deep underwater dives, chew up into a purple, smelly goo, then spit up for their young. Mysteriously redirected ocean currents have put krill out of these birds' feeding range.

Scientists think the unprecedented wave of starvation may be a sign that global warming is now ravaging the natural environment closer than ever to home.

I asked Bradley if he'd tried to save any of the dying chicks. Might he spoon-feed them? Syringe-feed them? He brushed the suggestion off, noting it would be considered unnatural and unscientific.

"You definitely grimace when you see the guy next door who hasn't done so well and has died at a very young age," he says. "We try to maintain ourselves as scientists. But we really feel for the birds."

This cool-blooded naturalist's response to leaving the chicks to die of natural, non-man-made causes is the equivalent of the objective reporter who takes photographs of war carnage instead of saving lives. And the idea that natural preservation consists mostly of letting nature take its course — absent man-made environmental disturbances — is doctrine among public parks bureaucrats, biologists, environmentalists, rangers, and every other member of the vast landscape of individuals and organizations involved in preserving the natural environment in America.

Projects where naturalists intervene to save species, such as the 40-year struggle to save the bald eagle, have so far been driven by the idea of returning life to its wild state, so that ecosystems can tilt back into balance. Institutions such as the Marine Mammal Center at the Marin Headlands rescue stranded or injured sea lions and other animals, based on the idea that their natural habitat, life cycle, and population stability have been compromised by humans.

Naturalists haven't generally sought to save nature purely from itself.

But as the planet grows hotter, and the consensus mounts that the temperature's not turning back down, scientists and park managers all over the country have begun debating what it means to preserve "naturalness," when in the not-too-distant future the state of nature will be something nobody's ever seen before.

The question arises: Should naturalists on the Farallons begin serving man-made krill stew to young Cassin's auklets, even if climate change might mean they won't again thrive on the islands?

Sadly, climate change may disrupt nature sooner than we think. Giant bureaucracies, meanwhile, move slowly.

The question of whether to begin saving creatures and habitats from climate change is one of the vast dilemmas that American government agencies, academic institutions, and nonprofit organizations dedicated to natural preservation may be ill equipped to answer in time.

For most people, current events such as dying polar bears, dwindling Sierra Nevada cold-loving pika, and massive forest die-offs in Canada and the Southwest are canaries in a coal mine portending a far-off day when we'll be a society of dam builders.

For natural preservationists, however, these — and the rest of the species that scientists expect to soon see global warming either kill or push to new habitats — are the coal mine. This means the preservationists need to think hard and fast: Do they rush to rescue climate-imperiled life before it's too late? Or do they let nature take her course, and quietly watch the dwindling of the species that they've spent decades restoring and protecting from unnatural, man-made scourges?

One thing is clear: Climate change has obviated preservationists' job of restoring natural ecological balance, because nobody knows what that balance will be.

"It may be that soon one-third of the species I'm seeing outside my window might not be able to find habitat here. Maybe half of them will be new species that find the new climate here amenable," says David Graber, chief scientist for the Pacific West region of the National Park Service, whose office is at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park. "Am I going to fight the new species? Am I going to welcome them?"

Similar questions are unfolding all over California.

Ironically, the issues of climate change and potential habitat extinction are particularly acute in the metropolis of San Francisco.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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