A Reverse Apocalypse for Washington’s Biodiversity?

By Sarah Titcomb
(Photo Source: Gregory "Slobirdr" Smith)

Ten of Washington’s most iconic native mammal species have gone nearly extinct at some point in the state’s history. These ten species include:

    - Grizzly Bears,              - Bighorn Sheep,
    - Bison,                          - Sea Otters,
    - Woodland Caribou,      - Gray Wolves,
    - Wolverines,                  - Pygmy Rabbits,
    - Pronghorns, and          - Fishers

Although, nine out of ten of these mammal species have made at least a partial recovery through natural or man-made restoration efforts. Natural restoration has been possible for wolverines, and possibly gray wolves, because of natural corridors that remain between the forests of British Columbia and Washington State. As the American Northwest became a string of boom towns with extreme levels of development, their Canadian neighbor to the north remained relatively undeveloped. With un-fragmented habitats available in British Columbia, species that were present at one time in Washington were allowed to flourish in Canada. Eventually, some of these segregated species have begun to migrate south again through available and protected corridors such as the Cascade Mountain range. 

The other seven nearly extinct Washington mammal species that have begun to make comebacks in the state, have accomplished this feat through physical reintroduction efforts. In the 1960s and 70s bighorn sheep and sea otters were actively reintroduced into the area, and conservationists are presently trying to bring back fishers to Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Some in the conservation world are even going so far as to call the improving species numbers a reverse apocalypse for Washington’s biodiversity.

(Picture of a Fisher, one of the species currently undergoing reintroduction efforts in the Central Puget Sound. Picture Source: US Fish and Wildlife Service.)

The question on the tip of everyone's tongues now is, why? For a long time the rationale scientists have used to bring back biodiversity is the "trophic cascade" effect. For instance, the reasoning behind the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone primarily focused on their ability to reduce the elk populations in the park. The elk were destroying willows, which negatively affected the ability of beavers to make dams and survive. The reintroduction of wolves into the national park was supposed to reverse this chain reaction, although, things did not really happen as planned. A common occurrence when trying to divine the future of complex systems.

Some of the current rationales for the reintroduction and protection of biodiversity beyond moral reasons, revolve around increasing biodiversity to re-engage the public in the outdoors.  The idea is that these reintroductions will increase the “intellectual excitement” of nature. If people think they could see a wolverine or a fisher, they may be more enticed to visit a national park. With this re-engagement, more residents could take part in healthy exercise and/or decide to take an active role in conservation.

Is intellectual excitement a good enough reason to spend the money and time required to reintroduce species to the “wild?” Not to mention, is it enough to justify exposing the specific animals to the possible stressors and hardship of physically moving them from one habitat to another? Or are we perhaps trying to create a reverse apocalypse so that we can feel less bad about the first one we started a hundred plus years ago? Regardless of the why, potentially the most effective, least stressful on animals, and perhaps least expensive method to reintroduce species to the forests of the Pacific Northwest may be to ensure safe and plentiful habitat/open space corridors. These corridors would allow species to migrate freely across their historic habitats (as with the wolverines and gray wolves), and create the added benefits of more open spaces available for recreation and more opportunities to spark intellectual excitement. See the ROSS’s Regional Challenge Overview Paper on Biodiversity to read more about the links between biodiversity and open spaces in the Central Puget Sound Region.

For more discussion on the reintroduction of species to the northwest, please see the recent article in the Seattle Weekly by Daniel Person, “Fishers, Grizzlies, and the ‘Reverse Apocalypse’ of Washington’s Wildlife” and Conservation Northwest’s webpage on their reintroduction efforts surrounding the Fisher. 

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