Unnatural preservation, Part I 

Public land managers face a dilemma in dealing with ecological changes brought about by climate change

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By M. Martin Smith and Fiona Gow

High Country News

Armoured in a rain slicker and floppy hat against guano-bombing waterfowl, Russ Bradley pokes about for signs of life on a craggy island paradise just off the California shore. One might expect the search to be easy, given the hundreds of thousands of common murres, ashy storm petrels, Brandt's cormorants, Leach's storm petrels, Western gulls, double-crested cormorants, glaucous-winged gulls, black oystercatchers, pigeon guillemots, rhinocerous auklets, tufted puffins, bald eagles, peregrine falcons, and Cassin's auklets that summer on the Farallon Islands, 27 miles off San Francisco in the Pacific Ocean.

During the past three years, however, Bradley has been checking on the breeding sites of the black, burrow-nesting Cassin's auklet, and he's been finding abandoned eggs; dead, black, cue-ball-sized chicks; and skinny, faltering fledglings. "Most of the chicks have died," says Bradley, a research biologist with PRBO Conservation Science, a nonprofit, founded as the Point Reyes Bird Observatory, that has spent the last 40 years counting and observing the hundreds of thousands of birds that nest yearly on the Farallons. "This was as complete a failure response as we'd ever seen before. And we'd been following this species for 35 years."

The apparent culprit: Ocean currents, redirected by rising sea temperature, have swept out of range the millions of tiny krill that the adult birds scoop into their beaks, chew into purple smelly goo and then spit up for their young. In other words, this unprecedented starvation wave may be a result of global warming.

Bradley is one of the experts who knows most about the auklet die-off. Just the same, he's adamant in his belief that he should not attempt to save any of the dying chicks. To do so, he says, would be considered unnatural and unscientific. "You definitely grimace when you see the guy next door who hasn't done so well and has died at a very young age," Bradley says. "We try to maintain ourselves as scientists. But we really feel for the birds."

In the world of natural preservation, it's not just scientists who take Bradley's don't-mess-with-Mother-Nature stance. Since the 1960s, the idea that natural preservation consists mostly of letting nature take its course — absent manmade environmental disturbance — has been doctrine among public parks bureaucrats, biologists, environmentalists, rangers and other members of the vast landscape of individuals and organizations involved in preserving America's natural environment. When naturalists have intervened to save species, as in the 40-year struggle to save the bald eagle, their efforts have been driven by the goal of returning life to its wild state, so that a damaged ecosystem can tilt back into balance. For the most part, naturalists have not sought to save nature purely from itself. With global warming, however, this hands-off approach is rapidly becoming quaint and out-of-date.

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