Like many conservationists, I count Aldo Leopold among my heroes. As an environmental science major, I read A Sand County Almanac, a collection of essays Leopold wrote about life on his farm in Wisconsin, his experiences as a professional wildlife manager and his thoughts on the state of conservation in this country. His essays reimagined our relationship with wildlife and highlighted the challenges of being a conservationist. Of all his essays, one sticks with me to this day: Round River.
In this essay, Leopold draws similarities between the American conservation movement and his dog, Gus:
I had a bird dog named Gus. When Gus couldn’t find pheasants he worked up an enthusiasm for Sora rails and meadowlarks. This whipped-up zeal for unsatisfactory substitutes masked his failure to find the real thing. It assuages his inner frustration.
We conservationists are like that. We set out a generation ago to convince the American landowner to control fire, to grow forests, to manage wildlife. [They] did not respond very well…To assuage our inner frustration over this failure, we have found us a meadowlark…The meadowlark was the idea that if the private landowner won’t practice conservation, let’s build a bureau to do it for [them]….
There is danger in the assuagement of honest frustration; it helps us forget we have not yet found a pheasant. I’m afraid the meadowlark is not going to remind us. [It] is flattered by [its] sudden importance.
When I read Round River today, Leopold’s concerns still ring true. Rather than working with local communities and private landowners, much of the conservation work done in the country over the past few decades has focused on laws and policy. That isn’t to say that laws and policy aren’t important. Without the federal government (and the bureaus Leopold mentioned), we wouldn’t have national parks, national forests, national wildlife refuges, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Wilderness Act or any of the agencies that do difficult and meaningful work to manage our land and wildlife. Laws and government agencies are critically important to the preservation of our wildlife, and Leopold understood that. After all, he was a U.S. Forest Service employee, wrote the first management plan for Grand Canyon National Monument (before it became a park) and proposed the Forest Service’s first National Wilderness Area. Leopold understood the value of government agencies, laws and advocacy.
However, I believe if you were to ask Leopold today, he would argue that we haven’t invested enough in working with private landowners and the American public. Conservation groups keep chasing one meadowlark after another until we’ve lost the scent of our original quarry: instilling a conservation ethic in the hearts and minds of the American public and private landowners.
Engaging private landowners is important for several ecological reasons. The land itself plays an important role in wildlife conservation. Wildlife don’t see the arbitrary administrative boundaries we’ve drawn on a map. Wildlife move freely across the landscape from highly protected federal land to private land. They have no idea that they have crossed from a wilderness area into someone’s backyard. In many places, wildlife actually prefer private lands, which are often at lower elevations and in highly productive areas, like valleys and floodplains. European colonizers claimed these highly productive lands as they expanded west, displacing both wildlife and Native Americans. The best habitat, for wildlife and people, was suddenly privatized by settlers. The landscape was soon lined with barbed wire fences, roads, cities and interstates. Imagine, though, if every developer, rancher and homeowner made decisions with wildlife in mind, designing our communities in a way that supports both people and wildlife.
A lot has changed since Leopold wrote Round River, but the conservation community continues to struggle when it comes to working with private landowners and local communities, and it can be frustrating work. Rural landowners and urban communities of color are often skeptical of conservation organizations. Building trust takes time, and even when a project is complete, it can feel very small in the grand scheme of things. It’s this frustration that makes it tempting to abandon this type of community engagement altogether.
If we, as a conservation community, have lost the scent of the pheasant, I believe that coexistence is how we can find it. Many traditional environmental battles pit conservationists against local communities and economic development. Even John Muir and Gifford Pinchot had this fight at the turn of the twentieth century. Coexistence reframes the entire discussion. Instead of trying to restrict or ban people from the landscape, coexistence asks, “How can we share the landscape? How can we be good neighbors to our wild neighbors?” Coexistence isn’t a zero-sum, winner-take-all game; it is a new way of operating, thinking and living that allows for people and wildlife to exist alongside each other.
What sets Defenders apart is our mission to advance coexistence: the idea that people and wildlife can share the landscape. With staff across the country, Defenders has advanced on-the-ground projects that help local communities and private landowners live, work and play around some of the most endangered wildlife in the country. By empowering local communities and supporting them with the information, tools, and resources they need, our staff are helping change the way communities view wildlife and their relationship to them. In concert with our policy advocates who secured funding for non-lethal technicians at state wildlife agencies and laws that protect sensitive location data, and our attorneys who fight to list imperiled species under the Endangered Species Act, Defenders is able to advance an all-encompassing coexistence ethic in this country: from the field to Capitol Hill to the court room.
Coexistence work can be frustrating. It takes a lot of time, countless conversations and building trust. Even after all that work, the result is usually very local in scale, and at a time when environmental problems are so broad and expansive (climate change, habitat fragmentation, marine pollution, etc.), it can sometimes feel inconsequential. What does it matter if one, small community starts to coexist with one or two species? Indeed, this frustration is the reason we chase so many meadowlarks.
But just because the work is slow and localized does not mean it is fruitless. The more coexistence allies we create across the country, the more we can do to advance strategies that benefit wildlife. I’ve seen ranchers advocate for wolves after using non-lethal tools to protect their livestock; first graders testifying to their city council about stormwater runoff after they learned about how their school’s raingarden helps orcas; hikers writing comments supporting grizzly bear restoration after they attended a bear awareness workshop. And that’s just because of the coexistence work the Northwest office of Defenders of Wildlife is engaged in. We are working with ranchers in the Southwest in Mexican gray wolf country, native people in Kaktovic, Alaska where polar bears come on land to find food, landowners in Florida where panthers are expanding their range, and numerous other communities and projects across the country. Everywhere, people are interested in coexisting with wildlife and just need the tools.
Coexistence has the power to transform individuals, which in turn can transform communities. By supporting people with tools and resources, we can start, in earnest, to pursue a pheasant; we can foster a conservation ethic in communities across the country. I believe that the more we invest in coexistence, the more we will fulfill Leopold’s vision of a country that respects, values and lives alongside wildlife.