The history of conservation and preservation in America, especially of animal species, has been a constant teeter-totter. First there was the competition for game resources and the hunting off of predators like wolves and coyotes. Then there was the destruction of habitat for those game animals as well, occasionally marked by the wholesale slaughter of the animals themselves, as with the bison herds. Of course, we realized our mistake here, and tried to ameliorate it by protecting deer and elk from hunting on certain public lands. Then they overpopulated and started starving themselves to death, without any natural predators. Finally, the use of chemicals in farming and industry, which had unintended consequences on a variety of species, such as the bald eagle. Now that we’ve banned DDT, everything is hunky-dory and they’re coming back. In each of these cases, we ‘learned our lesson’. We are now preserving threatened predators – wolves have been reintroduced to Yellowstone, and more mountain lions added to the existing population to sustain it. But finding the delicate balance between managing a population of animals, preserving something of the wilds for future generations and our own enjoyment, and complying with the needs of man and economics.
Take this recent tussle between preservationists and ranchers near Yellowstone. On the one side, you have people sorry for the madcap (and, from all written accounts, visually disturbing) slaughter of the bison herds, and on the other you have cattle farmers trying to preserve their livelihood. But it’s not only a case of man vs. beast. It’s also a case of how much. How much land should the bison be given? They have no natural predators, and they are big animals that it takes a fair amount of pasture to feed. Are 500 bison enough to preserve, and how much land to they realistically need? As naturally wandering animals, they are not easily contained in one area, even an area as big as Yellowstone. Does that mean we should go ahead and kill them off to preserve the grazing land and health of cattle? Does it mean that we should designate ever-widening areas of preserve? Does it mean the bison should be allowed to roam free – even across private property and at the expense of others?
There are no answers to these questions, no real solutions. As best we can manage an unsteady balance. Bravo to the Parks Service for doing so thus far.