Swans Commentary » swans.com December 4, 2006  





by Martin Murie





(Swans - December 4, 2006)  In a hidden valley in Wyoming longhorn cattle roam. The cows are long-legged and they run like deer. The bulls are stockier and spend a lot of time alone, occasionally squealing. What's that all about? Loneliness? Letting the cows know who's boss? Warning a rival? These animals are wild, especially the cows with calves. What exactly do we mean when we say that an animal is wild?

Just the other day a man was killed by a buck whitetail deer. It's rutting season; apparently the buck took the man for a rival. I'm reminded of a tame mule deer doe, half grown. We had been feeding her and petting her. Finally, we turned to go and I felt two sharp hooves slam onto my back. What the hell? A playful tap? Sudden hostility? Once two of us kids crept into the pasture where a supposedly tame elk named Billy had peacefully lived since fawndom. Billy lowered his antlered head and charged. We scuttled back, got under the fence in time.

House cats can go wild, so can dogs. Even Herefords and Angus and other "domestics," placid and accepting, can turn edgy when left out on the range. I asked a rancher why longhorns, their meat being lean, were not more popular, especially now that low fat diets are all the rage. He answered in market terms. "People still want that marbled beef." He went on to tell of a longhorn calf raised on his ranch that grew up friendly and docile.

My dictionary says that "wild" derives from Middle English, wilde or wielde: Wild, bewildered, confused, not domesticated, as wild ox. Dave Forman goes back to Beowulf for the meaning he prefers.

Long before I had heard of the Beowulf-time word, wildeor, self-willed beast - I watched the horny-toads and bluetails scurry through the grama grass and rabbitbrush of the high desert and knew that they ran their errands on their own time in their own way, not on human-time or in human-way. (1)

But, what do these wild beasts think of us? Fair question? More than that, we and The Others encounter each other more often, now that second and third homes are encroaching on wild animal habitats, and sprawl brings encroachment on "civilized" precincts by the wild things. My biologist father told of meeting a black bear, close up, suddenly. The two looked at each other. They were thinking. Never mind our uncertainty about the kinds of consciousness other mammals and birds are endowed with, the bear and the man were thinking. My father, armed only with some mouse traps in a flour sack, spoke. "Well, what're you going to do about it?" The bear turned, reluctantly, angled off, not wanting to turn his back completely on the wild creature he had nearly bumped into. There is a polarization here, many defenders of "the wild" draw a firm line between domestics and the truly wild, while others of us wonder how truly domesticated (civilized?) we humans are and, furthermore, whether cats, dogs, horses, cows et al. are all that reliably tame. It might make for better tactics if we think of all of us vertebrates as negotiators, somewhat wild or extremely wild or quite tame, even kindly, curious, etc., depending on the situation. We are, that is to say, creatures who work out proper behavior that we hope will fit the circumstances, each of us relying on whatever genetic smarts have emerged from interplay between birthright DNA and life's chancy course.

This little shift to a more fluid stance might be important, because the Endangered Species Act (ESA) tells all of us citizens of God Bless America that we will try our darndest to preserve every extant kind of animal, from the lowly and nearly extinct flower-loving fly to "self-willed" grizzlies or mountain lions. Many non-governmental outfits are busy defending the ESA from the Bushites in Congress, as well as goading the federal Fish and Wildlife Service to work harder to save a long list of actually endangered species awaiting action. Probably the most visionary of these NGOs is the Wildlands Institute with their Rewilding Project that has mapped several proposals for linked habitats in the Americas. The Central America to Yukon map is one of these; it shows wilderness areas and other public lands in the Rocky Mountain chain, connecting these with tracts called corridors to provide continuity. Many large animals, such as predators, ungulates, wolverines, et al., range far and wide. These animals have to be accommodated. Corridors are essential, not only to provide roaming grounds and recovery from natural disasters, fire, flood, famine, etc., but also to ensure reproductive mixing to maintain genetic diversity. The criteria for mapping these huge continental areas are ecological, not recreational. For example, the more roadless areas there are, the better for species recovery. For a thorough presentation of the theory and practice of creating corridors see Corridor Ecology. (2)

Taking maps from paper to on-the-ground creation faces some obstacles:

a) Private lands needed for connectivity might not be available, either by refusal of owners to install corridor requirements, or by outright owner refusal to jeopardize profitable operations and expectations.

b) Insufficient funds and willingness by governments to buy corridors and reduce road networks.

c) Hostile governments cozied with corporate America whose goals do not include rigorous implementation and enforcement of the ESA.

d) All three of the above barriers are supported by a public mindset that still does not take seriously enough the horrific damage already done to world ecosystems.

Other rewilding maps: (a) Arctic/Boreal, across Canada with an offshoot into the upper Great Lakes, connecting Alaskan Yukon and McKenzie rivers with the Atlantic Provinces of Canada. (b) Atlantic, from Canada south through Florida. (c) The Pacific, linking habitats through Pacific Coast areas. Military lands (entrance allowed only by authorized personnel) in the west are not mentioned in these plans, but I would guess they will be at least considered as the mapping proceeds. Some of these reserves in Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona are very large and are probably closer to wilderness condition (if we forget about unexploded ordinance) than many Wilderness Areas.

How realistic are rewilding maps and visions? Reflex antagonisms based on worn-out government-hating poses and pretenses have already dismissed such visions, and many environmentalists, deeply entrenched in go-along-to-get-along politics are equally dismissive. But the realistic position is that radical, wide-ranging visions are the best hope for finally making the ESA work, allowing us to create a sharing of habitats, coexistence between us and The Others.

Let's face it, the saving of species and the establishment of wilderness areas has gone downhill, become a timid nibbling process, concessions to off-roaders, concessions to oil and gas drillers, disastrous give-aways to real estate mega projects. Oh well, we're told, that's the way our economy works, can't change it, have to work within it. Nonsense. The realism position is that we must and we can (must and can go together) change our habits, our very economy, our outlooks on nature and in the process discover that our miseries as a nation are a network with corridors and connectivities everywhere, from Katrina to the give-aways of Old Growth in the Pacific northwest, from war terrorism to cancer alleys here at home. Or, while fighting cancer alleys, corrupt elections, et al., a person just might get acquainted with longhorns or a wolf pack or a grizzly, a black-footed ferret. Experiencing the world, dynamic, zigzag interactions, just about anything can happen.

However, endangered species can't wait much longer. Maybe we can't either.




1.  Dave Forman, Rewilding North America. A Vision for Conservation in the 21st Century, 2004, Island Press.  (back)

2.  Jodi Hilty, William Z. Lidicker, Adina M. Merenlender, Corridor Ecology. The Science and Practice of Linking Landscapes for Biodiversity Conservation, 2006, Island Press.  (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art12/murie15.html
Published December 4, 2006