Monday, February 02, 2009

Conserving distinct ecological units

I have an interest in diverse life forms, and when I become interested in a species, I sometimes become somewhat obsessed, trying to learn all that I can - I want to know more, and more. The result is that no matter how much I learn, I am always humbled by how little we as humans actually know and understand about the animals in which we share our environment.

As many of you know, I spent a couple of decades obsessed with learning about our native Rocky Mountain wolf, trying to compile what little recorded history existed for this unique subspecies, and arguing about subspecific distinctions and whether they could/should be based on size distinctions, genetics, behavior, etc.

Living in western Wyoming, I see wild horses often, and started wondering about them as well. Different herds in specific areas have distinct color patterns that reflect the herd sire. Some stud horses tried to defend territories, while others only defended his mares. Jim and I watched a stud horse trying to kill a colt that obviously wasn’t his. Animal behavior is fascinating to watch and I wanted to know more, so I went to the Bureau of Land Management office to start going through the wild horse records, to see what I could learn. What I learned was that the BLM had started capturing studs and moving them around to various places on the range, trying to improve the color patterns of the herds. Nothing scientific, just the personal preferences of agency personnel. Within a few years, I could see the changes. The band of dark bays with thick necks suddenly had appaloosa or paint markings, and white feet. Argh. I quit looking and didn’t want to know any more. Of course, later research reveals that before this pick-a-color and move it around program began, genetic research on the dark horses revealed Spanish Barb origin.

This seems to be a constant pattern with wildlife managers - moving animals around nilly-willy, with little or no concern for the consequences.

Need more Sonoran pronghorn? Here, have some fawns from Wyoming’s pronghorn population. I kid you not - this took place just a few years ago.

Need some wolves in Wyoming? Here, have some from Canada. Bighorn sheep from Wyoming have been transplanted all over the western United States. Different bighorn subspecies (not native to this area) have been transplanted here as well, in hopes that the new subspecies won’t be migratory.

I recently filed an interlibrary loan request for a book about golden eagles and later came upon the obituary of the author. He had taken golden eagle chicks from Scotland and reintroduced them into Kazakhstan. I’m still trying to figure out golden eagle subspecies and where they are located (subject of a future post), only to learn that we’ve muddied that subject as well.

Those who care about primitive and aboriginal dogs and livestock seem to have a better handle on the importance of distinct ecological units than many wildlife managers. Even fisheries professionals are backing away from the old mentality of transplanting sport fish everywhere, regardless of the origin of the transplant and status of native species.

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) mandates the conservation of endangered species, and Congress went so far as to define species to include “any subspecies of fish or wildlife or plants, and any distinct population segment of any species ...”. Unfortunately, the current standard practiced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is that anything less than a species is entirely “discretionary” when it comes to deserving or qualifying for protection. Our legal system has let the agency get away with all the “discretion” it wants.

I wrote about my concern in the epilogue to my book Yellowstone Wolves: A Chronology of the Animal, the People, and the Politics:

In a 1987 paper in Social Studies of Science entitled “Paradigms
and ferrets,” Tim Clark and Ron Westrum questioned the adequacy
of traditional wildlife management approaches when applied to
endangered species, using the black-footed ferret as a case study.
They used the term “ecology of applied ignorance” to describe
the influence of expectation on perception, which is based
on four concepts:what is expected is what is looked for;
what is looked for is what is seen; what is unexpected is
unobserved; and what is unexpected is unreported.

Clark and Westrum provided specific examples of how each of
these concepts have led to faulty “scientific reality,” which, given
time and additional observation, were corrected. These expectations
are a powerful force, with powerful social effects. Since survival of
an organization is a natural goal for its members, Clark and
Westrum assert, “It is only human for an organization’s scientists
to be more favorable to facts and theories which present it
[the organization] in a positive light.” In addition, an organization’s
stance on an issue can become an anchoring point for future opinion. 

Success in science leads to recognition, which leads to power,
as evidenced by control of access to research sites and funding,
gatekeeping of publications, and even the ability
to determine what is to be considered “scientifically competent.”

“In time what was merely a consensus begins to appear as objective
fact. Critiques of the established view are received with surprise,
incomprehension and ridicule,” according to Clark and Westrum.

“As the establishment becomes larger and more dominant, it can
present its critics as misguided, badly informed or even dishonest.”

Thus, the scientific establishment represents a concentration of
both opinion and power, and if unopposed and not subject to
criticism, can become too self-centered and close-minded
to actually accomplish its objectives, such as preserving
endangered species.

The quest for taxonomic truth in wildlife seems to have been
abandoned, as wildlife management has turned to pursuit of
homogenized species. Cases abound as wildlife managers
move animals around without regard to maintaining the
taxonomic integrity of ecological forms, affecting everything
from numerous fish species and orangutans to pronghorn
antelope and bighorn sheep.

The determination of what constitutes a species, subspecies,
and a distinct population is a critical factor in future
implementation of the ESA. The words of the act are powerful,
including the provision calling for conservation of threatened
and endangered species, including “any subspecies of fish or
wildlife or plants, and any distinct population segment of any
species.” Taxonomic units lower than subspecies
are to be protected, according to the law, including those
“distinct population segments,” which should be reason to
rejoice. But it is not.

... Today, FWS is busy delisting large carnivore populations
that it designates “distinct population segments” — not
because of any real ecological distinction, but because of the
distinctions of jurisdictional lines, including state boundaries.”

Anyone care to weigh in on this subject matter?


Moro Rogers said...

Uh...what's the *right* color for mustangs...? The color of horses two million years ago...?

Steve Bodio said...

I wish they would study more before ACTING.

Our elk here are descended form Yellowstone elk, because the native, huge antlered Merriam's was supposedly extinct. But they now grow much bigger antlers on average than northern elk. Was there a relict population?

Scottish eagles to the Kazakhs? WHY? The daphanea subspecies of Central Asia is much bigger and different in other ways.

And by what mandate do they scramble the genes of wild horses?

Incidentally the new Nat Geo has an article on them.

Cat Urbigkit said...

Small world Steve. I was on that same photo shoot in southwestern Wyoming with the National Geographic photographer.

Since the BLM does roundups to take excess horses off the range, they always end up with some that are too old or otherwise unadoptable - especially older studs. With the horse refuges already full, we had a BLM office here in Wyoming that didn't just place these horses back where they came from, but moved them around to improve the color patterns in various herds. These "improvements", of course, like beauty, are in the eye of the beholder.

I really want to see some DNA tracking of golden eagles in the USA and the Altai region. I swear I saw two different types of goldens when I was in the Bayan-Olgii region.

Steve Bodio said...

The Kazakhs claim there are different kinds. Didn't see any but I am open to the idea. All WERE larger than ours.

L said...

Wow - I can't get over plucking goldens from a rain-soaked eyrie in hare-laden Scotland and relocating them to Kazakhstan! As utterly dry and dusty as Western Mongolia is, I can only imagine what seemingly minute adaptations the switch would endlessly muck up.

And as Steve says, not to mention the size; from what I've seen, female "Scottish" eagles (or something similar) tend to have fly weights between 9 and 10lbs - far and away from many of those daphanea eagles.

Cat - it is interesting that you say that about goldens in the Bayan-Olgii region - I spoke to a prominent falconer that had traveled throughout central Asia and was adamant that there should be further subspecies divisions, or at least that one should recognize significant population differences within them.

Great post!

therese said...

I’ve got some insight into these questions. I apologize in advance for both these long rants, I’m currently working on some species redescriptions and its not progressing as fast as it needs to be.

So subspecies are a relic of 1950's species concepts. I know they still teach in biology (even university bio) that for something to be a species it has to be reproductively isolated from other similar groups. Conversely then if two groups are able to reproduce they were the same species. The concept of a subspecies was a way for a taxonomist to be like these things mate just fine, but they look different, have different ranges, etc. Since biological species concept has gone the way of the dinosaurs, in the real world we now operate under about 20 different species concepts and subspeceis as such are no longer necessary. Infact what most people think of as subspecies are no more than races. May sound like a wording difference but the two are not even remotely the same. Subspecies, as a taxonomic unit, implies a monophyletic grouping while a race does not. There have been some interesting papers looking at subspecies in birds and in some papers up to 97% of the recognized subspecies looked at are not monophyletic. Most of us these days ask a series of questions before describing a new species or revising old ones. The two I ask as a follower of the phylogenetic species concept are 1) is the group diagnosably different and 2) is it following its own evolutionary path. Question 1 means I need to be able to look at a specimen and say this belongs to morphgroup x. Not based on range, not based on behavior, based on actual morphological/molecular evidence. Question 2 determines if the group is monophyletic or not. If the group is in question meets the 2 criteria it’s a valid species. The fact that its able to interbreed with morphgroup y (say in captivity or in hybrid zones) doesn’t mean anything. Since those incidents are rare they don’t affect the overall evolutionary path of the two species. However if these events become common- say 2 groups of birds that look a bit different but have massive range overlap and commonly interbreed the evolutionary path of the two groups is intertwined and they are not monophyletic in respect to each other. In this instance there is a single valid species. If you like splitting things you can have a few races- group 1 and group 2- but because the two groups arnt monophyletic they aren’t an actual taxonomic unit.

As a side note a number of the new “insert large mammal/bird” here discoveries announced are elevations of old subspecies as the groups are being revised using modern phylogenetic theory. The Bornean Clouded Leopard (described in 1823 as a subspecies of Clouded leopard) comes to mind- read the Yahoo news story (or any other paper) and they conveniently neglect to mention that detail, after all the headline: Bornean Clouded Leopard now a species 200 years after discovery doesn’t quite have the same ring to it does it?

As far as reintroductions go I tend to like the peregrine approach used by the p-fund in parts of the US. Use birds from across the entire range of the species and let the best genes win. Overtime the animal will either resemble the original animal (if that morphology is still the best for the environment) or it will create a new morphology to reflect what is now the best. In general reintroductions/restorations are sort of silly. People hate to hear it but landscapes aren’t static, they aren’t naturally so why are we trying to make them static now. I have no problem with reintroductions where there is a single or small group of known causes for the extinction event (peregrine and eggshell thinning comes to mind) but when the reality of the situation is the bird was on its way out anyway, it’s right on the edge of its range to start with, throwing a few million dollars at the problem isn’t going to fix it and that money could have been better spent on habitat protection for other things. Extinction is a natural event and is not uniformly bad. Take prairie chickens for example. I’ve been involved with various aspects of the Attwater’s prairie chicken for about 6 years now- raising birds for release, looking at insect population at APCNWR, and that sort of thing. APCs are the southern most grouse species period. Grouse are an northern bird, the fact that a group living literally at the edge of where a grouse can survive is basically extinct isn’t surprising. But it makes people feel bad because they look cool and habitat loss is partially to blame so they throw money at it. Large sums of money at it. Hey its paid my salary for a while so I’m a hypocrite but whatever. Interestingly enough the northern populations are also doing pretty badly in some areas mainly due to habitat loss and there are some projects trying to keep numbers up. Only one problem- if you’d been in those areas 250 years ago there were no prairie chickens- they moved in as European settlers cleared forests for farming. So what point in history are we picking as “ideal”?

Steve Bodio said...

Great comment Therese-- I'm tempted to put it "up fron" (withyour permission of course).

So things like Gyrs and Sakers, which do interbreed in Central Asia, would still be separate (if recent) species? (The zone may be a lot bigger than some think).

And Barbaries, which do NOT interbreed even when sympatric but are interfertile with peregrinus, aere also good species?

therese said...

Steve: you are more than welcome to post it if you wish.

Yup barbs and peres should be 2 species, I think trends are moving towards recognizing them as such.

Gyrs and Sakers also, as you said a fairly recent divergence. Infact depending on what markers you use they don't form monophyletic lineages (this is a problem with strictly molecular studies, alot is determined by gene choice)

Mike Spies said...

Great post, Cat. The bit on expectations leading to observations that support those expectations is certainly true. The effect of the observer on the observed applies in spades.

The 'consensus of opinion' that becomes transmuted into accepted dogma seems to be applicable in all aspects of life. That's how sloppy work and stupidity lead to scientific arrogance.

Our world demands critical thinking.