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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Reappearing Animals

Air Date: Week of

Author and commentator Bill McKibben on the Endangered Species Act.


CURWOOD: Amid all the fears about species going extinct, we hear reports of animals reappearing in places they haven't been seen in generations. On the face of it, this seems like a positive finding. But to commentator Bill McKibben it's only the latest chapter in a story that may not have a happy ending.

McKIBBEN: In the mid-18th century, Thoreau made a list of all the animals that had once lived in and around his Concord, Massachusetts home but were no longer to be found there. The wolf, the turkey, the beaver, the bear, the deer, the porcupine, the moose. Save for the wolf, they've all returned. Deer in record numbers to browse on suburban shrubbery, wild turkey flocking back toward the scene of the first Thanksgiving, beaver busy creating new wetlands. Several years ago, state game officials shot a moose that had taken up residence on the median strip of nearby Route 128, America's Technology Highway. They donated the carcass to a Salvation Army soup kitchen.

And it's not just the northern forest. Seals have returned to Long Island Sound in the last decade. The sea otter population off California's coastline is booming. Alligators have moved so far off the endangered species list that no Florida golfer would even consider fishing for a ball lost in a water hazard.

In an age that biologists assure us is marked mostly by extinction, and by extinction on the order of the great cataclysms that killed the dinosaurs, what do these small resurgences mean? Not that we should assume nature will bounce back from our abuse; for every sea otter rebounding on the Pacific shore there are 100 populations of birds and beetles and frogs losing ground. Indeed, even some of the so-called recoveries are signs of dsperation. When a manatee spends all winter in the hot wastewater of a Houston sewage treatment plant, it's a sign of life out of whack.

All it means is that in those few places where human beings have backed off, nature retains some small measure of resilience. In the mountain east, where farming moved west a century ago and the forest began a slow recovery, even the cougar may be returning to the woods. Where game laws and endangered species acts have ended poaching in protected habitat, and where toxic pollution has abated to levels that allow reproduction, animals have responded.

It's almost dangerous to discuss these successes, because too many people are eager to take them as signs we can gut our environmental laws and count on nature to clean up after us. Instead, they're signs of just the opposite, signs that the early efforts at ecological vigilance have shown some payoff. Signs that there's some grace left on the planet, that we may yet by redoubled effort be able to meet the rest of creation halfway. Signs that in a few scattered places we've started down the right track.

CURWOOD: Commentator Bill McKibben lives in upstate New York. His most recent book is called Hope: Human and Wild.



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