blame it on the pigeons and seals (and wolves and….)

I live in an area with a lot of cars and concrete and trash and noise.  The pigeons in the area tend to get string and other bits of debris wrapped around their toes which then swell up painfully and sometimes even fall off.  I feel badly for them and sometimes, especially when the weather is bad, I feed them.  There is one area where they sun themselves on buildings near a set of stairs leading from one road to another and I go there in the mornings at times to throw them seed.  The stairs are generally filthy, with trash littered about.  One morning as I was feeding them, a lady stopped and told me I shouldn’t do that – as she put it, “What if some child wanted to play on these stairs and they couldn’t because of all the pigeon filth.”  I looked around at the broken glass and used condoms and discarded bags and boxes and wondered, “Are you seriously blaming this on the pigeons?”  Sadly, on some level she was.

As someone with an interest in the environment, I see this attitude come through in other areas as well – an attitude that animals are somehow to blame for the mess humans have created.  Or, if not to blame, at least enough of the problem that eradicating their small contribution will somehow make things better.

One prime example of this can be seen in a case that recently came before the Ninth Circuit: Humane Society of the United States v. Locke, 626 F.3d 1040 (9th Cir. 2010).  Here, Plaintiffs were challenging a National Marine and Fisheries Service decision to allow the lethal “taking” of up to 85 seals annually in order to preserve salmon stocks.  Estimates of how much salmon the sea lions consumed ranged from 3.6% to 22.1% of the migrating salmon.  While the sea lions are killed for taking this percentage, fishing that takes between 5.5% and 17% is allowed, as is a similar percentage of fish mortality from dam systems.  Federal agencies concluded that these human-based killings had a “minimal effect,” and Plaintiffs in the case contested the fact that the sea lions’ smaller cumulative percentage of killings should then be considered as having a “significant negative impact.” Id. at 1045.

The Ninth Circuit thankfully saw the illogic and remanded the issue back to NMFS “to afford the agency the opportunity either to articulate a reasoned explanation for its action or to adopt a different action with a reasoned explanation that supports it.” Id. at 1053.  But even so, the court was careful to acknowledge that sea lion predation is a “serious and potentially significant problem” and assured NMFS that the APA only requires it to present a “cogent explanation.” Id. at 1054.  Further it held that NMFS was not required to prepare an EIS under NEPA regarding the lethal removals.

I find it sad in the extreme that humans cannot back off their salmon intake despite the fact that it is human activity that has brought them to the brink of extinction.  No…it is much better, apparently; to kill sea lions because they are the “negative impact” and the “serious and potentially significant” problem.

In another case, recently the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released its NEPA required Environmental Assessment on Alaska’s proposed plan to establish a “predator control management action” on Unimak Island (in other words, chase wolves by aircraft until they are exhausted and then shoot them from the air). U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Management Alternatives for the Unimak Island Caribou Herd, December 2010.  Alaska claims that this is necessary to allow for subsistence hunting on the island to resume. Id. at 1.  The EA determines that some form of predator control is necessary, but declines to back a specific alternative until public review of the EA is complete, although it states that the Alaska proposal to use helicopters to selectively shoot wolves hunting caribou calves is the most likely to succeed. Id. at Executive Summary.

Oddly enough, while subsistence hunting is given as the need for this killing, prior to Alaska’s shutting down all hunting on the island in 2009, big game and trophy hunters took some 90 caribou between 2001 and 2007, Id. at 9, while subsistence hunters took only around 10. Id. at 28.  The EA itself admits that the decline in the caribou population may be within natural ranges for an isolated island population. Id. at 32.  Further, while it states that wolf predation of caribou calves is a certain factor in the caribou decline, it also admits that hunting may have contributed to the loss of caribou bulls which is also contributing to the falling population. Id. at 8.  Critics of the EA’s focus on wolves to the exclusion of other predators have pointed out that while black bears also prey on caribou calves, bears are a favorite of trophy hunters and as such, need to be protected to be killed for pleasure later. USFWS Proposes Wolf Killing at Alaska NWR, Refuge Watch (Jan. 17, 2011, 9:08 PM), (I have serious issues with this too, but that is a whole other article).

I am not a wildlife biologist and so I cannot argue about the intricacies of the Unimak ecosystem and what truly needs to be done, but from what I have read, there is something about this situation which seems to me to be similar to the sadly familiar scape-goating of a fellow creature in order to “fix” a problem we have at least in part created.

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