Mother Nature or Nurture?

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

That's evolved to mean preserving natural plants, animals, and other natural features within the range that their populations have grown and shrunk during the period of time before the white man arrived.

So any meddling that occurs in national parks, preserves, refuges, or other protected areas — such as the swamp ecologists recently dug at the Presidio of San Francisco's former Chrissy Field runway, or the shrubby natural area gardeners recently planted amid the eucalyptus on the University of California land atop Mount Sutro — must be in the service of a perceived previous natural order.

"It instituted in the Park Service in a way a kind of respect for nature that was apart from gardening," Graber says. "Before the Leopold report, I called it cowboy biology. We made it up as we went along. If Yellowstone wanted more buffalo, they got it."

Under the new regime, it became necessary to prove such a bison introduction would be "natural."

Notwithstanding controversies pitting dogs versus nature in San Francisco, or "natural" wolves versus ranchers in Yellowstone, the naturalistic approach to environmental preservation has met with monumental success.

Egg hunters and pelt gatherers at the turn of the century reduced the wildlife-rich Farallons to a relatively barren state. Since they became protected as the Farallon National Wildlife and Wilderness Refuge in 1969, the islands have contained the largest seabird colony outside Alaska and Hawaii.

Northern fur seals, which used to populate the Farallons by the tens of thousands, and were hunted to extinction on the islands following the Gold Rush, have recently returned in force. A single pup was born on the islands in 1996. Last year there were 100 pups.

The starving Cassin's auklets, however, point to a possible day when this let-it-be strategy won't produce the desired results.

One of the predictions of global warming is that there will be major changes in wind patterns and ocean currents. And biologists have long said that those currents and patterns are crucial to moving nutrients into places where animals and plants can reach them, at temperatures at which they all can thrive.

"In May of 2005, and roughly the same time of year in 2006, we had highly unusual wind patterns and ocean currents that were atypical," said Ellie Cohen, executive director of PRBO Conservation Science.

If those patterns become the norm, some of the bird species that every year blanket the Farallons could perish. Others might thrive. Will preserving a semblance of the status quo turn natural preservationists into something more akin to gardeners? Or zookeepers?

"It may be that at some point ecologists and conservationists decide the level of intervention may have to be higher than anything we've ever considered before," says Cohen. "Are we willing to go on the Farallon Islands to feed Cassin's auklet chicks until they're big enough to survive?"

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