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Science for Parks conference, part 5

Categories: News, Science
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5. Conference Keynoter E. O. Wilson

A great many people in the Wheeler Hall crowd on March 26, 2015, had the same feeling: We are in the presence of the world’s foremost living biologist, a man who has made a big difference in many fields of endeavor. We were not disappointed in his address.

Born in 1929 and raised in Alabama, Edward Osborne Wilson became the world’s leading expert on ants, but he has studied and written on numerous subjects relating to the natural world. The prizes awarded him are amazingly numerous and include the 2012 International Cosmos Prize and two Pulitzer Nonfiction prizes, for On Human Nature (1979) and The Ants (1991, with Bert Hölldobler). Berkeley Professor Steve Beissinger, who introduced Wilson, said his own favorite book by the speaker is his autobiography, The Naturalist (2006).

E. O. Wilson lord of the ants keynoter
Picture source: PBS
Dr. Wilson is now a Harvard emeritus professor and a special lecturer at Duke University, where he located his E. O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation. The goal of this foundation is to forward stewardship of the world through biodiversity and education. Another center established in his name is the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center near Freeport, Florida, whose mission is “making naturalists in an outdoor extension of the science classroom.”

Wilson calls his religious position “provisional deism” and feels that religious leaders and scientists should build an alliance. But his human sociobiology ideas (the study of the biological basis of all forms of social behavior in both animals and man) have met with opposition.

Of course, it will be impossible to sum up what E. O. Wilson said in a few paragraphs, but I will pass on some high points for readers who do not plan to listen to the entire talk (starting at 2:30 in the video).

Beginning with what scientists have learned in the field of biodiversity in the past twenty years, Wilson defined it as the “collectivity of all inherited variation in any given place.” It can be divided into three levels: ecosystems, such as ponds or forest patches; the species in an ecosystem; and the genes in each species. Only about one-fifth of all the probable species in the world have been discovered and named as yet. This census needs to be sped up; among the national parks Great Smoky National Park has so far the most complete U.S. census, and about 18,000 species are known to live there. “We live on a little-known planet,” he says.

Moving on to the subjects of species extinction and efforts to preserve species, Wilson told us that the global extinction rate is some one thousand times greater now than before the coming of humans to the planet. “Prospects for the rest of this century are grim,” and “loss of natural habitat is the primary cause of biodiversity extinction.” Can we believe, he asks, that future humans can manage life in a system devoid of all or most of the species that took three-and-one-half billion years to put together?

As of 2015 about 15% of land surfaces and 3% of oceans are protected from exploitation. Wilson believes, however, that a world population of ten billion people could live on earth if 50% of land and sea areas were protected. “We can achieve this with four unintended consequences of human behavior.” These are (in brief):
1. A dramatic drop in the fertility rate, achievable “whenever women attain a modicum of social and economic independence.”
2. More population living in cities and the land thus gained utilizing improved agricultural methods: “Present day agriculture [in much of the world] is Neolithic.”
3. Reduction of the ecological footprint, the space each person needs, becoming less as the global economy evolves, creating products using less material and less energy.
4. “Easing of demand on the natural environment inherent in the evolutionary shift from an extensive economy to an intensive economy.” Most of the National Academies of Science, he says, recommend “focusing on quality of life instead of capital and economic power as the premier measures of success.”

Dr. Wilson ended his remarks by stating that “national parks and reserves are going to be logical centers for fundamental research.” This is already true for the geosciences; soon, he predicts, it will be comparable for original studies of the living environment.

During the question and answer session, Wilson recommended that places such as national parks and reserves be connected in corridors, such as is already being set aside in the Yellowstone–to–Yukon (Y2Y) initiative. And replying to “What is the role of the U.S. national parks in all this?” he went out on a limb: “More, bigger!” he said; “take a central place in America’s strategic planning alongside defense.”

Wilson would like to see more science schools include departments of herpetology, entomology, and the like, where students can study biodiversity and “bring in the armamentarium of modern biology to enrich their studies.” His reply to a question about triage for endangered species was, “Save them all!”

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Science for Parks

Categories: History, Science
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National Park Service arrowhead logoDid you know that about 100 years ago, a series of meetings held in Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the University of California at Berkeley led to the formation of the U.S. National Park Service?

Here’s a belated notice about an interesting summit, “Science for Parks, Parks for Science: The Next Century,” being held in Berkeley March 25-27. The co-presenters are UC Berkeley, the National Park Service, and National Geographic Society.

Author Janet is attending and promises to share interesting tidbits she learns afterwards. The keynote speaker was E. O. Wilson. During the summit, the sessions will stream live from this page; in a few weeks all the talks will be recorded and available on YouTube.

Historian Alfred Runte wrote a thorough article about the early talks during 1911-1915, the connections with the railroads and the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, and how they led to our national parks. You can read the article, called “UC Berkeley and the National Parks: A Centennial Retrospective,” on the National Parks Traveler website.

Here’s more from the conference website:

The goal of the summit is to envision and contribute to strategies for science for parks and science using parks for the coming decades by building on the historic linkage between NPS and scientists at leading universities and other organizations around the world. This collaboration will be crucial to nurture the future health of parks and protected areas worldwide and biodiversity conservation. The summit re-dedicates that partnership in a forward-looking way by examining the mission of the National Park Service and its relevancy today, scientific and management implications of this mission in a changing world, social and cultural dimensions for advancing the mission, and the future of science for parks and parks for science.

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Thoughts about Wyoming wolves—Report on a provocative book, 2010

Categories: Flora and Fauna, Wildlife
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Wanting to get an idea of the larger picture of the ongoing controversy about wolves, I recently bought and read my fifth book about Yellowstone and wolves, but this one from the point of view of a journalist, Wyoming resident, and (in recent years) sheep rancher named Cat Urbigkit. It’s called Yellowstone Wolves: A Chronicle of the Animal, the People, and the Politics, published by McDonald & Woodward in 2008.

Cat and her husband filed a lawsuit in the early years after wolves were reintroduced to the park. They contend that, in pushing through the wolf introduction in 1995 and 1996, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not consider the already existing population of wolves, proven by many sightings over several decades in western Wyoming. They also feel that the native wolves should have been protected, and they believe that the Canadian wolves are a different and larger species.

Other entities filed other suits, and rulings and decisions about the wolves rolled through the courts until January 2000, when the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals decided that the Canadian wolves were to stay.

Yellowstone Wolves is effectively two books in one: Chapters 1 through 19 detail the remnant wolves and the legal maneuvers, and Chapters 20 through 33 tell of wolf depredation in Wyoming and the very real hardships ranchers have encountered. An example is the large number of pet dogs that have been harassed and killed by wolves. Chapter 27 claims that the well-publicized Defenders of Wildlife payments to ranchers for livestock lost to wolves actually compensates them for only about half their losses.

The book includes an interesting foreword by former USFWS employee and wolf taxonomy expert, Ronald M. Nowak. He writes that Urbigkit “tells the story from the perspective of both a conservationist devoted to saving an endangered wolf and as a rural resident whose livelihood may be jeopardized by the wolf,” and concludes that she “has demonstrated the complexity and anguish of wolf conservation and provided a unique perspective on a fascinating story.” I remain a fan of the Yellowstone wolf introduction but have come away from reading this with an increased understanding of the controversy it has caused.

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More about the Burns TV documentary

Categories: On the Web
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On the National Parks Traveler website, a former park superintendent discusses some interesting issues about the parks that were not covered in Ken Burns’s fine TV documentary aired this past fall. Read his post.

I agree with much of what Rick Smith says. However, he couldn’t begin to cover national parks from all angles even in the twelve hours allotted for the episodes. Burns’s emphasis was history and the contributions of people who aided the parks’ creation, and he covered those aspects very well.

There is a small fallacy in former superintendent Smith’s paragraph about other countries reserving protected areas. He writes:

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature reports that there are now over 100,000 established protected areas in the world, not all of them national parks, of course, but all established to preserve and protect natural and cultural resources. These areas cover approximately 11.63% of the world’s terrestrial and marine areas. Yellowstone was the first such area created in the world. . . .

If you include all types of national reserves such as national monuments and seashores, Yellowstone was not the first area protected and set aside. Back in 1832, the Hot Springs Reservation in Arkansas was created by Congress, granting federal protection of the thermal waters. Yellowstone (established in 1872) was the first to be called a national park.

2010

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