I was born and raised in Washington, D.C. and lived right down the street from the National Zoo. So the zoo was kind of my backyard, so to speak, and I spent afternoons there looking at the various inhabitants, including the original Smokey the Bear, the bald eagles and many other animal species as well. One of my favorites was a small group of North American bison who stood together seemingly without ever moving and attracted lots of flies. I knew that if I wanted to see a buffalo in the wild, I would have to journey out west to the Great Plains.
Which, in fact, I did in 1968 when I watched the buffalo roundup in Wind Cave National Park. The park, along with Custer State Park, lies just to the east of South Dakota’s Black Hills and the herd, which numbered about one thousand head, was a tiny remnant of the enormous buffalo herd which had survived the depredations of commercial hunting before and after the Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869. Buffalo meat can now be found on restaurant menus here, there and all over and today’s herd probably numbers around 200,000, enough to insure the survival of this breed. But when Europeans first came to America, buffalo could be found all over the continent and probably wandered freely through the area that is now the National Zoo. By 1800, however, they had disappeared east of the Mississippi, having fallen prey not only to hunters, but to fences and land cleared and planted for farms.
The balance between human and natural habitats is precarious to say the least and always results in loss of the latter due to expansion of the former. Our original conservation movement was founded by Theodore Roosevelt and George Bird Grinnell, who witnessed first-hand the disappearance of species as American settlers penetrated the frontier and moved across the West. But regulating hunting seasons can only protect animals that are the targets of a hunt. What about all the other wild creatures whose habitats are threatened by the ever-increasing encroachments of Man?
A genuinely different and effective response to this problem has now exists with the work of an organization, Conservation Centers for Species Survival (C2S2), which unites the formidable talents and resources of such outstanding programs as the Smithsonian National Zoo, my old playground, the Fossil Rim Wildlife Center in Texas, Omaha’s Doorly Zoo and several other major wildlife centers, to take advantage of decades of wildlife management experience and develop programs in biodiversity, population optimization and habitat management that can both expand existing species populations, as well as threatened species both within their natural environment as well as in man-made habitats such as nature reserves and zoos.
What I find most intriguing about the C2S2 effort is its emphasis on collaborations, consortium-types of planning and, most of all, public-private partnerships. I like this last approach because when it comes to conservation over the years the public and private sectors have often been at odds. Conservationists are often seen as anti-progress, private development is viewed as having little concern for the natural environment if it gets in the way of economic growth. Does anyone need to be reminded of Sarah Palin leading the chant: Drill baby, drill?
The one question which remains to be answered is: why should we be concerned about the survival and sustenance of wild animals at all? I’ll tell you why. Because wild creatures teach us things about ourselves. We have figured out how to go to the Moon, but we still haven’t figured out how to stop killing each other over the most unintended, little slight. That makes us somehow a higher life form than a wild creature which never attacks its own species even in the search for food?
Take a look at the C2S2 website and remember that after tomorrow you’ll be done with Hillary’s campaign and you can donate some money to this wonderful group. It’s a good thing to do.