Sunday, January 5, 2020

New Jersey Bird Life, First Preamble: What We Can Do, What we Can't Do, and Who Decides What We Should Do

[Want more White-tailed Deer, or less? We know how to do either, and can. Same question, resident Canada Geese? Same answer. Ruffed Grouse, saltmarsh birds, freshwater marsh birds, beach-nesting birds, forest songbirds. . .um, uh, um, well, you see. . .]

Please note that throughout the following few blog posts, I will use "we" to mean people who care about birds: scientists, professional conservationists, professional birders, amateur birders, backyard birders, somebody who enjoys the robins on their lawn or the chickadees at their feeder, or even people who notice those big white swans on the pond.

Let's get to it. Here's what we're NOT going to do, because we can't. We're not going to get rid of NJ's hardscape, which I define as places where humans have made it impossible for water to get into the soil (aka impermeable surfaces) and for plants and other living things to get out of the soil. We've got a lot of that, I don't know exactly how much but I'm sure my friends in the Rutgers GIS lab could tap their keyboards a few times and tell us exactly the acreage, square miles or land cover percent of NJ that is hardscape. GIS stands for Geographic Information System, although back in the 1980's one of my major professors, Dr. Jim Applegate, wryly called it Guaranteed Income Stream for those proficient in it hoping to enter the environmental conservation fields. However, crusty old biologists are still needed to figure out what we should ask GIS to tell us.

So think Newark, Jersey City, Paterson, Morristown, New Brunswick, Flemington, Camden, most of the Jersey Shore. These places are hardscaped and they're going to stay that way, although places like Woodbridge are buying and demolishing houses in the face of sea level rise, and eventually (spoiler alert) that force is going to de-hardscape the Jersey shore, or more likely force the hardscape inland.

Similarly, we're not going to put back all the rock we've cut off the Palisades, Watchungs and other rocky places to make the hardscape. Done deal, though I would argue that quarries have not done a whole lot to NJ bird populations.

One final thing I don't think we're going to do, although we eventually could and maybe already can: we're not going to un-extinct species. We could grow some Great Auk eggs in a petri dish, implant them in, I don't know, Thick-billed Murres or puffins, and bingo we've got another tick for our life lists. Ditto Carolina Parakeet and their closest South American relative. How about some mastodons while we're at it? Just think of the emotional scarring the foster African or Indian elephant would develop when it gave birth to one of those things. . . OK, I'm being facetious, but even if this stuff could work, we're looking at billions of dollars. Not gonna happen.

Now we get down to what we can do and what we should do. Another major professor of mine, Dr. Len Wolgast, taught us that wildlife management is "The manipulation of wildlife populations, habitat and people for a specific human goal." When 10 years later I was back at Rutgers teaching Lenny's classes while he was on sabbatical, I used the same definition. It works, though I would add that the word "manipulation" is used without any negative connotation.

Here's our first challenge: what is our specific human goal? Which goes straight to who decides, and the answer when it comes to NJ birds is that collective "we" I mentioned above. If you think of humans and nature as separate (I don't, and I think the notion is dangerous), and if you think we should just let nature take its course without human involvement, here's the newsflash: it has been over two million years since humans were not involved, and like it or not, we are involved now.  Perhaps you've read the best-selling book 1491? If you haven't, it makes a fine start when it comes to North America, because it demonstrates that humans were affecting nature on this continent for a loooong time before Columbus, and then the arrival of Europeans turned that whole bit on its head, and here we are. So, WE decide what the goal for NJ birds is, and while I'm going to confine myself to NJ, the line of thinking applies to the entire planet's bird life.

I'm comfortable saying our goal is lots of birds of lots of species. Where humans have caused species declines, let's set it right if we can and if we know how. The devil is indeed in the details: more to come.

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