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Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Politics of Extinction

About half of all American adults woke up this morning in a severely bad mood.  I was one of them. 

There were lots of things to worry about Wednesday morning.  The future of the Affordable Care Act.  Voting rights.  The situation in the Middle East.  Everyone who voted had something they were concerned about, whether or not their candidate won.  Lots of things to worry about... among them red wolves.

I don't live in North Carolina, but I follow its politics very closely.  That's because it is politics, not science, which often influences the fates of endangered species.  I was hoping that new leadership would result in an administration that was more favorable to the future efforts to conserve red wolves in the wild.  That hope, it seems, has come to naught (as of this moment, the race is uncalled, but given all else that's happened, I'm a pessimist).

The current administration in North Carolina is decidedly unfriendly to red wolves.  They've put pressure on the US Fish and Wildlife Service to end reintroduction efforts and have made clear their position that wolves have no place in their state.  This has been driven in part by complaints from some local landowners, but even more largely by anti-government sentiment.  The wolves are with the government, therefore, must be bad, the philosophy goes.

The same story has played out, with various themes, in the case of the California condor, the black-footed ferret, the whooping crane, and the snail darter.  Politics.  It plays into decisions as to whether or not grizzly bears, gray wolves, or sage grouse belong on the Endangered Species list or not, or what exactly counts as critical habitat.  It colors conversations about trophy hunting and sustainable yield.  It determines if and where oil drilling is allowed... and that's not even touching the elephant in the environmental room - what is our commitment to fighting climate change.

It determines also where tax dollars get spent - and don't.  It's worth noting that the last time we had a Republican in the White House, the newly appointed Secretary of the Smithsonian attempted to close the Smithsonian's Conservation Biology Institute, an integral component of efforts to save many endangered species through captive breeding.  His argument?  The facility is closed to the public, so what's the point of having it?

Conservation biology is the science of species and their future.  Politics is the science of people.

Whenever I see politics injected into online zookeeping conversations or email threads, it tends to get squashed out immediately.  They say politics has no place in zoos.  I disagree.  As long as zoos and aquariums are in the conservation field, then it has everything to do with them.

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