There is a certain type of arrogance that leads us to believe we can “manage” nature. You hear it all the time from government. Wildlife managers set hunting quotas, count fish and geese, and get rid of problem animals. You hear it all the time in environmental assessments. Studies are done, reports are written, and we are assured that proposed developments can go ahead as any negative effects on wildlife and the environment will be safely mitigated. Oil spills will be cleaned up, forests replanted, birds will fly somewhere else, and the world will continue on its merry way.
There is a general sense that the experts know all about nature, and can measure, organize, and control it. We might assume that the wonderful diversity of plants and fungi and birds and whales and wasps and wolves, and all the other creatures that we share the planet with, is in good hands. After all, we have been studying this for hundreds of years.
Of course, we know much more about this planet than in the past, yet the accumulation of knowledge and data depends on funding, and this, in turn, depends on there being an economic incentive to have studies done. It could be argued that a detailed knowledge of biological diversity is critical to our continued existence on this planet, but it would be hard to find economists or governments who agree. The “green economy” is more about energy than protecting the world’s biodiversity, which is severely threatened. Environment ministries in Canada, both federal and provincial, have moved away from funding nature and wildlife work and become focused on the physical world. A great deal of basic information about plant and animal species is still unknown, or is left to unpaid enthusiasts to collect.
Take, for example, the number of flowering plants in the world. No one knows for sure how many there are. Until a couple of years ago, the global list had about a million names on it, but a team of American and British botanists is in the process of whittling this down to about 400,000 by eliminating all the duplications caused by different names for the same plant. It is perhaps understandable that this would occur with plants, which can be tricky to find and identify. However, the number of animal species on Earth is not known either.
Animals unknown to science are regularly found: in the last few years new mammals have been discovered in Vietnam, new birds in Peru, a monkey in Tanzania, a stingray in Thailand, and fish, frog, lizard, snake, and insect species in Borneo. If you think it unsurprising to find new species in these exotic locations, what about the rediscovery of the Sierra Nevada red fox in California this year, a species thought to be extinct? Closer to home, a rare subspecies of southern red-backed vole, thought to have been extirpated 50 years earlier, was rediscovered in Burns Bog in 1999. The Rohwer’s shrew was found for the first time in Burns Bog and Canada in 2006. These are good news stories, but serve to show that we know less about nature than might be apparent.
The first step to learning about a species is recognizing it exists. Learning its role in the ecosystem, its physiology, behaviour, and life cycle, and all the other details of its existence is many lifetimes’ work. We are very far from knowing these details about the vast majority of species that are familiar and common within our own landscape. What has caused the sudden increase in this year’s Fraser sockeye salmon run, far above anticipated numbers? How many birds that migrate through British Columbia were affected by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico?
Our domesticated animals, food crops, and medicines all originally came from the wild, yet we tinker and tamper with nature and hope for the best. Surely it is time to properly support the basic study of nature and wildlife populations, untrammeled by the desire to justify development proposals and make excuses for why the birds can “just fly elsewhere”? I am sure we would learn much to our advantage.
Anne Murray is a naturalist and the author of two books on Lower Mainland nature and ecological history—Tracing Our Past: A Heritage Guide to Boundary Bay and A Nature Guide to Boundary Bay.