04/16/2021

Conserving More Than Just the Planet’s ‘Beloved Beasts’

17:24 minutes

illustrations of a pattern of animals including giraffes, monkeys, elephants, leopards, turkeys, ferrets
Credit: Shutterstock

Historically, “conservation” simply meant not overhunting a game animal, preserving sufficient populations to continue to hunt the following year. Over time, however, conservationists have learned to broaden their focus from individual animals to entire ecosystems, protecting not just species, but the food webs and habitat they need to thrive. 

But the evolution of conservationist thought hasn’t been straightforward. In her new book Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction, science journalist Michelle Nijhuis profiles some key figures in the history of the conservation movement–from well-known names such as John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Rachel Carson, to lesser known figures such as 1930s-era bird lover Rosalie Edge. Nijhuis explains how some of these conservationists did the wrong thing for the right reasons, while others managed to do the right thing despite misguided or short-sighted thinking.  

SciFri’s Charles Bergquist talks with Nijhuis about how conservationist thought has progressed, and her hopes for the future of the movement. 


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Segment Guests

Michelle Nijhuis

Michelle Nijhuis is a project editor at The Atlantic and author of Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction. She’s based in Washington State.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Continuing our lead-up to Earth Day next week, the first Earth Day 51 years ago was all about pollution. We had rivers burning, air full of soot and smog.

Well, pollution still threatens us, but our climate crisis has changed our focus. Habitats are shrinking or shifting. Some species are still critically threatened. But in a few cases, there are victories. The conservation movement has been successful at preserving species and ecosystems. SciFri’s Charles Bergquist is here. Hi, Charles.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Hey, Ira. Happy almost Earth Day to you.

IRA FLATOW: To you, too.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Do you have a favorite conservation or environmental icon?

IRA FLATOW: You know, as a child of the ’60s, I’d have to say that one of the names that most resonates with me is Rachel Carson and her seminal book Silent Spring, because it made me and a lot of people aware of how a chemical– a simple thing like DDT– could have such a far-reaching effect on an ecosystem and the birds that live there.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Yeah, she’s definitely a major figure in the lineage of conservation. But did you know that some of the key observations in Silent Spring, the data that based her figures on raptor decline– they existed mainly because back in 1934, this scrappy conservationist named Rosalie Edge bought up the land around Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania in defiance of the Audubon Society? She was battling them at the time.

IRA FLATOW: Really? I had no idea.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Yeah, it’s something I learned from a new book on the history of some of these icons from the conservation movement. It’s called Beloved Beasts by Michelle Nijhuis. And I had a chance to talk to her recently. I started by asking her how she defined conservation.

MICHELLE NIJHUIS: Conservation in the sense of preventing waste and loss has, of course, been around for as long as humans have been around. People have been restraining their own hunting activities to make sure they had enough animals for the next season for, probably, millennia. But the modern conservation movement started in the late 1800s when people first realized that they could drive species globally extinct.

And the conservation movement has grown and developed since then into a movement to protect not only individual species, but relationships among species and relationships between species and their habitats. So it overlaps with the concerns of environmentalism quite a bit. But environmentalism as a global movement didn’t really get its start until the early 1960s.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: You’ve been a science writer covering the natural world for over 20 years now. What made you write this book?

MICHELLE NIJHUIS: Well, before I was a journalist, I made a living as a field assistant on wildlife research projects throughout the Southwest, so I got up close with not only some fascinating creatures, but some of the very passionate and even violent debates over threatened and endangered species that were taking place at the time and are still unfolding all over the world. And what struck me about those arguments was that the questions people were asking were so basic and profound. You know, instead of arguing over the details of how to save these species or how to protect these species for the long term, people were asking, you know, why is this species important? Why should we save this particular one and not another? Whose responsibility is it?

And I had a sense at the time that people in the past had asked these questions and proposed some answers. But I think, like most people interested in conservation, I didn’t have a very strong sense of conservation history as an intellectual movement or as a tradition that had built on itself over time. So I realized that it might be useful to try to piece together this history and look at how people had answered these profound questions over time and how those answers had changed over the years.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Stories of conservation are often these tales of the charismatic creature. And maybe one of the best examples is the story of the bison in North America, how they were almost hunted to extinction and brought back. But as you tell it, the story is much more nuanced than that.

MICHELLE NIJHUIS: It’s true. The Plains bison was one of the first species that galvanized the modern conservation movement. Before the mid-1800s, people in North America and Europe didn’t really have a sense that human activities could drive species extinct. They had relatively recently realized that extinction could happen at all. And then to understand that human activities could, in fact, make a species disappear forever was another realization entirely.

But once people grasped that idea, many people then entered another stage of denial where they would say, well, this is very sad, but maybe this is the price of national progress. And it took a few founding conservationists– mostly wealthy hunters– to stand up and say, look, this is tragic, yes, but it’s not inevitable, and we have a responsibility to do something about it. So those early conservation leaders, namely a man named William Hornaday, who was a taxidermist and a trophy hunter and eventually the director of the Bronx Zoo, took it upon himself to raise a herd of bison in the Bronx and put them on a train and send them out to Oklahoma.

There are many, many ironies to William Hornaday’s story. He was more concerned about protecting the ability of white, wealthy men to hunt the bison than he was about restoring the really devastating effects of the decline of the bison on Native American communities and First Nations. But the happy irony of the bison story, to me, is that in the decades since Hornaday’s death, Native American tribes and First Nations have begun a much more ambitious effort to restore the bison to the Plains ecosystem. And there’s now a really exciting, tribally-led, continent-wide effort to bring the bison back in greater numbers and also to restore it to its place in the ecosystem in the sense of helping it recover its place as a keystone species in relationship with other prairie species.

And Hornaday really didn’t have a sense of that. He didn’t have a sense of the bison as part of an ecosystem because the science of ecology was so young at the time. So because of his actions, short-sighted as they were in some ways, we are now able to continue his work and facilitate a much, much richer and fuller recovery of bison on the Plains, and do that in parallel with a cultural recovery, which is really, I think, the direction that conservation should be going in the future and is just full of potential for both people and other species.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: I’d always sort of mentally combined the creation of national parks with the conservation movement, but you write that conservation goals had to be almost back engineered into the parks’ mandate.

MICHELLE NIJHUIS: That’s true. The national parks movement operated in parallel, in some ways, with the early conservation movement, but the people who supported national parks were interested in protecting beautiful landscapes. They were interested in developing tourism. In some cases, they were interested in commercial development in the places where the parks were located.

Scientists and conservationists didn’t see parks as potential wildlife refuges until several decades after the national parks movement started. So they have almost retroactively become places where we conserve wildlife.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: So there are groups that were sort of preserving land. There were other groups that were focused on individual species or groups of species, the “let’s block the plumage trade of feathers for fancy hats,” for instance. At what point did we start thinking of ecosystems as a whole, and we need to protect this whole ecological unit?

MICHELLE NIJHUIS: Well, it really wasn’t until the 1930s and ’40s. And it’s funny, because I think most people who are interested in conservation and saving species today think, oh, of course habitat is an important part of protecting species. Of course they’re part of an ecosystem. These are familiar terms to many people, even if they’re not scientists.

But it really wasn’t until the science of ecology matured and wildlife biologists, most prominently Aldo Leopold, who was a professor at the University of Wisconsin in the 1930s and ’40s, made the connection between protecting species and protecting the resources that they needed. Before then, wildlife conservation had mostly been about stopping people from shooting too many animals, which was of course important, but Leopold and others realized that the next step was, once you stopped people from directly killing these animals, you had to make sure that you protected a place for them to live.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Is there a lineage of conservationists? Do they exist as islands, or is there a connective thread from, say, Hornaday to Leopold that you can trace?

MICHELLE NIJHUIS: Well, that was one of the most rewarding parts of this project for me. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t think many conservationists or people interested in conservation have a strong sense of the movement’s history. I think we all know some famous names– Rachel Carson, maybe Aldo Leopold, maybe John Muir– but we think of these people as individual icons working more or less in isolation.

And they did do great work on their own, but they also cooperated with many people, famous and not so famous. And they were often in contact with one another, writing back and forth, arguing, disagreeing, building on each other’s ideas. So to find correspondence between, for instance, Aldo Leopold and William Hornaday, who was a generation older than him, or between Aldo Leopold and Rosalie Edge, who was a bird conservationist in the 1930s– that was really exciting to me, just to realize that conservation is an ongoing, intergenerational project. It’s an ongoing conversation, an ongoing argument, and it’s a cooperative effort. It’s not something that people can or do accomplish alone.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: You mentioned Rosalie Edge just now. There’s this fascinating story about how she came to blows with the Audubon Society, but in a roundabout way contributed to Rachel Carson’s work.

MICHELLE NIJHUIS: Yeah. Rosalie Edge is not as well known as some of the other people I profile in my book, but she was key to a very important expansion in the conservation movement. She was born into a wealthy family in Manhattan, came to conservation relatively late in life, and was horrified to find out that the Audubon Society, whose leadership at the time was composed more or less of the wealthy sportsmen who had founded the conservation movement, wasn’t doing much to protect birds of prey– hawks and eagles– because sportsmen at the time considered those birds pests, pests who preyed on the birds they wanted to hunt. And they just considered them kind of a lower class of bird, a scavenger who ate leftovers, something not really worth protecting.

And Rosalie Edge had a very precocious sense of ecological connections, and she said, look, conservation can’t just be about protecting species you like. It has to be about protecting all species and the connections between them. She won that battle with the Audubon Society. The leadership eventually had to embrace protections for hawks and owls.

And she also established a sanctuary for hawks that still exists today. It’s called Hawk Mountain. It’s in Eastern Pennsylvania. I highly recommend you visit if you haven’t gone.

And the researchers there, beginning when the refuge was founded in the 1930s, started recording the numbers and kinds of birds that flew overhead. And that data, about 30 years later, became a key piece of evidence in Rachel Carson’s case against DDT in her famous book Silent Spring. So if Rosalie Edge had not started collecting that data, Rachel Carson might have had a much weaker case against DDT, and we might live in a very different world.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. I’m Charles Bergquist, talking with science journalist Michelle Nijhuis about her book Beloved Beasts about the history of the conservation movement. We keep using the term “conservation icons,” but I should make clear that this is not a book of hero worship. You give difficult stories of how some of the members of the early conservation movement had difficult views about race or the role of Indigenous peoples in the landscape.

MICHELLE NIJHUIS: As I mentioned earlier, conservation is full of people who did the right things for what we would now see as very wrong reasons. William Hornaday was one of many early conservationists who had racist views, colonialist views, many views that we would now consider limited or were even considered limited at the time.

This is not, of course, to say that the practice of conservation is racist or that all conservationists are racist. Nothing could be further than the truth. But my research showed that in every generation of conservationists, there are a few prominent individuals who have a very strong sense of the complexity of other species, but a much weaker sense of the complexity of our own species. In the worst cases, they see other races as less complex than their own. And then in a less pernicious but still counterproductive sense, they might see humans as not capable of individual decisions, sort of destined to cause damage to the environment, when we know from decades of social science research that humans are capable of playing a constructive as well as a destructive role in conservation, and that there’s great opportunity for finding a constructive role for people to play in the ecosystems they live within.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Are you hopeful, or are you pessimistic about the future?

MICHELLE NIJHUIS: It depends on the day. You know, one of the rewards of this project– the surprising reward, really– was that the historical perspective did give me a sense of possibility and even, on the best days, even optimism, because it made me see how many successes there have been in the past that we don’t often appreciate as people who care about conservation, because we’re always focused on the next emergency. Stepping back and seeing those successes did give me a sense of, OK, we’ve done it before. This can happen again.

You know, of course the progress of conservation has not been linear. There have been many steps backward and many failures along the way. But there has been overall, I think, a growing sophistication, a growing understanding of how complicated it is. And we know a lot, and we know how to find out more, and we know, in many cases, what to do. It’s a matter of finding the will to do it.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Michelle Nijhuis is a project editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is Beloved Beasts– Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction, published by Norton. Thank you so much for taking time to talk with me today.

MICHELLE NIJHUIS: Thank you so much for having me.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: For Science Friday, I’m Charles Bergquist.

IRA FLATOW: One last thing before we go– we reached into the SciFri archives for an interview back in 2000 that was the celebration of the 30th anniversary of Earth Day. I talked to Denis Hayes, one of Earth Day’s original co-founders, and we reminisced on the early days of the environmental movement in the United States.

You had rivers catching fire. People used to say, I want to breathe air I can’t see. Right? But we don’t have those visible reminders of environmental problems today, so Earth Day today has taken on a different form, the Earth Day 2000.

DENIS HAYES: Right. We still have in many parts of the world, and in some parts of the United States, these same early things that are threats to people and to their children and to their neighborhoods. But what’s more profound in some ways is that over the last several decades, our species has begun to have the ability to change for the worse the entire planet, to punch holes in the ozone layer, to trigger a global epidemic of extinction, and of course, the one that we’re choosing to focus on this year, global warming. And so what we’re trying to do is to understand that with these global problems, there’s no way that any one country can solve it by themselves.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, that does take me back. If you’re like me and you like these little moments of science history captured on radio, you want to sign up for our new newsletter series, Science Friday Rewind. We’ll be dipping into our archive to look back on the history of the environmental movement, from the first rallies in the ’70s that took place in the US to the rise of environmental justice and equality to today’s youth-led climate marches around the world. So please sign up at ScienceFriday.com/rewind. That’s ScienceFriday.com/rewind. I know I will.

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