Hardly four years ago, I started my first job in science. After an 8-hour drive up the east coast, my brother escorted me into a small, single-floored building facing a woody patch above a salt marsh, the headquarters of Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge. My heart swelled with anticipation: Here I was, finally living the dream. I envisioned a summer working along the idyllic Maine coastline, rescuing endangered birds and punching invasive species in the face, while basking in the beauty of nature and my many successes as a conservation biology intern.
Boy, was I wrong. (Well, except for the idyllic part.) The summer was to be trying, one that would challenge everything I thought I knew about conservation -- but also one that would redefine the way I thought about the same.
I dove eagerly into my work, pacing the beaches to scan for the rare piping plover eggs camouflaged into the sand. A shout indicated a found nest, which we encircled with a chicken-wire fence and roof to keep predators out. I sat on the beach at dusk to count least terns while greenhead flies and mosquitoes took advantage of every inch of my exposed skin. I wandered through (what felt like) miles of marsh searching for saltmarsh sharp-tailed sparrow nests, slipping into ditches and toiling to extract my wader-bound legs from the mud.
But all for naught. In a single night, an unidentified predator ate every least tern egg in the colony. Few of the cottonball piping plover chicks survived to adulthood, and I wept to see one carried off by a hawk early one morning. We had failed, I thought. We had wasted our time.
After a few weeks of hard thinking, I sauntered into my boss’s office one evening. The boss, Ward, spoke gruffly unless he spoke of his refuge, which he described in a tone that oozed love, betraying his tough exterior. We had hit it off from the moment we compared bird tattoos early in the summer. That day, I plopped myself down across from his desk and, as an overconfident youth, declared, “I want to talk about conservation.”
Ward chuckled and, with a smile, encouraged me to tell him more. “All this work that we do: Does it actually have a point?” I asked. Without our efforts to protect the vulnerable nests, raccoons would have decimated those plover eggs within a week — and the work we had put in had largely failed. How did those little birds even stand a chance? Wasn’t the real problem that beach-goers didn’t watch their step, homeowners couldn’t bear to keep their cats inside, and that civilization allows trash-dependent predators to thrive and threaten the birds?
In other words: Is the fight against human stubbornness hopeless?
Ward sighed before he spoke. Prior to joining the refuge in Maine, he told me, he worked down in Florida. People first flooded the wetlands to drown out mosquitoes, then drained them for development. The efficient work quickly swallowed up the nesting grounds of the dusky seaside sparrow, an endangered bird with an already narrow range. During his tenure at that refuge, Ward watched the sparrow population dwindle until there were six known birds left in the wild. Six birds that had no chance of survival as their habitat was destroyed and predators encroached.
It was then that Ward watched his boss make what was, undoubtedly, one of his life’s is hardest decisions: to capture the remaining birds and place them in captivity at Disney World. The biologists hoped to breed the birds and release them once their population was large enough — but instead, seven years later in 1987, Ward saw the last one die in captivity.
“The last one, the last dusky seaside sparrow that will ever exist,” he said. The birds he had loved and worked so hard to save were gone, never to return. Maybe our efforts seemed hopeless, he said. He looked me straight in the eye with a sure sadness and added, “but I have to do something.”
Just like that, Ward transformed before my eyes. Conservation biologists aren’t just happy-go-lucky folk who like to play outside and hang out with animals. Their every day is an uphill battle, holding out for the day when society sees things the way they do, while trying to change that mindset however incrementally.
Now I realize that I acted childishly. As childishly as those who grew angry when I asked them not to swim in protected habitat on the fourth of July, or as childishly as those who wouldn’t let us protect plovers on their property because the exclosures were eyesores. Like them, I couldn't think in the long-term and demanded instant gratification: that if conservation was going to work, it was going to work now, goddamnit. But conservation work requires long-term hope, and double hope, at that. Conservation biologists have to believe, not only that their efforts will pay off in the future, but that society is capable of change and will grow to support those efforts.
I thought of this story when I read a series of correspondences published in Bioscience over the past few months. The authors bicker about the specifics, but they seem to agree on the main point: that pessimism has stained the hope that all conservation biologists must hold dear. It's pessimism on the part of the scientists charged with training the next generation, who have yet to see their labor bear fruit. And it's pessimism in the media, which constantly reports on conservation issues as if we have already lost the polar bear, or as though there is no point in changing our behavior if we can't save the polar bear.
I don't support naive hope, but I also don't support the mindset that preserving biodiversity is a false hope. There is certainly real work ahead of all who care about conservation. But, as David Shiffman and Andrew Thaler so elegantly described on their blog Southern Fried Science, there have been victories. Animals near extinction have been resurrected through conservation efforts and education.
And education is necessary because a few scientists can't do it on their own. Conservation biologists focus on the short term fixes -- breeding programs, monitoring and, yes, constructing fences around bird nests. But the long haul will take education about the challenges of conservation and the steps non-scientists can take that will have a real impact. It will come down to everyone learning to respect the land and water, more than anything.
So now I really understand why I stood on the beach in Saco, Maine on the fourth of July that summer, sweltering in full Fish and Wildlife uniform. Because the work I did that day, talking to beer-clasping beach-goers about the weird circular fence around those birds and its purpose, is the most important work. The long-term plan requires a change in how people see and interact with wildlife, and how their actions extend beyond the immediate time and place.
We must have hope. Because Ward's tale of his dusky seaside sparrow could be read two ways: that there is nothing we can do, or that next time we have to do better. We must hold tight to this latter optimism. Am I idealistic? Perhaps. But so is anyone whose wishes cannot bear fruit in the status quo.
Cannot end without thanking everyone who made that summer what it was: Mike, Mike, Amelia, Carrie, Kate, Shonee, Angie, David, Zeb, Bob and, of course, Ward. You are all mine forever.
Patten, M., & Smith-Patten, B. (2011). "As If" Philosophy: Conservation Biology's Real Hope BioScience, 61 (6), 425-426 DOI: 10.1525/bio.2011.61.6.2
Swaisgood, R., & Sheppard, J. (2010). The Culture of Conservation Biologists: Show Me the Hope! BioScience, 60 (8), 626-630 DOI: 10.1525/bio.2010.60.8.8
Swaisgood, R., & Sheppard, J. (2011). Hope Springs Eternal: Biodiversity Conservation Requires That We See the Glass as Half Full BioScience, 61 (6), 427-428 DOI: 10.1525/bio.2011.61.6.3