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Marching Forward for Science and the Wild

One of the formative moments of my young life came as I prowled around the edge of a pond searching for water snakes and painted turtles. Gazing into the water, I was surprised to see a massive snapping turtle cruising the muddy bottom.

A snapping turtle glides along muddy, brown water, just under the surface, among seven floating lily pads.
A snapping turtle glides beneath the water’s surface. Photo: Tom Tetzner, USFWS

The huge gray turtle was covered in spikes, bumps, and other intricate articulations, looking something like an underwater Star Destroyer—and nearly as intimidating, I’m sure, to any smaller creatures in its path. My heart skipped several beats, and then the turtle was gone. Electrified, my brain swam with a thousand questions about snapping turtles and the hope that I would see this amazing animal again. I also wondered how I could catch such a large turtle for closer inspection, and imagined myself growing up to be a snapping turtle biologist.

Many years down the road, I am chief Conservation Scientist for Wildlands Network, an incredibly satisfying job I’ve held since 2010. Even though I enjoy my work, I have become sadly aware these last few years that we’re living in a dystopian era of misinformation and fervent anti-intellectualism. On the bright side, resistance is growing rapidly in strength, with people fighting back in defense of reason and logic—and in support of policies based on science and evidence versus political expediency or religious whimsy.

Pro-science groups around the country have planned a powerful new March for Science to take place on Earth Day, April 22 (see marches near you). In the words of the organizers, “It is time for people who support science to take a stand and be counted.” With the March quickly approaching, we at Wildlands Network thought it would be a great time to remind our supporters that we have always been a science-driven organization.

Walking the Walk

A quarter-century ago, Wildlands Network was founded by a powerful alliance of prominent conservation scientists (such as Michael Soulé and Reed Noss) and eco-advocates like Dave Foreman, David Johns, and John Davis, who urged conservationists to take a more realistic approach to protecting biodiversity. In the face of an extinction crisis and feel-good measures like postage stamp-sized conservation projects scattered here and there, our founders recognized that scientific evidence demanded a much more extensive, continental-scale effort.

As renowned biologist E.O. Wilson (a passionate supporter of Wildlands Network, by the way) recently popularized in his latest book, Half Earth, we need to protect and restore at least half of the planet in order to sustain biodiversity and, in turn, ourselves. Our work to reconnect and rewild North America stems from our early appreciation of the science-driven mandate for large landscape conservation.

One of the core reasons we need to protect so much land is so that apex carnivores like wolves, cougars, jaguars, and grizzly bears have sufficient room to roam and thrive. These species need vast tracts of wildlands to establish viable populations safe from poaching and persecution. Critical to large carnivore restoration is to reconnect our remaining natural areas into an integrated network, sufficiently scaled to overcome the negative consequences of habitat fragmentation.

Why do we need apex carnivores back on the landscape? Again, our answer comes back to science. Wildlands Network’s longstanding board members John Terborgh and Jim Estes literally wrote the book about trophic cascades*, the scientific term for food-chain effects that cascade down from one level of consumers to the next and culminate in affecting producers like plants and algae.

Science from around the world shows that when ecosystems lose their top predators, things begin to unravel as populations of mid-sized carnivores (like raccoons) and large herbivores (like deer) explode. Too many mid-sized (meso) predators on the landscape translate to losing sensitive species of native songbirds, while too many deer decimate wildflowers and saplings—potentially causing the forest ecosystem to crumble from below.

Wildlands Network pursues the restoration of carnivores like wolves and cougars not because they are cute and fuzzy, not because they are charismatic, but because they are essential for the health of all of the terrestrial ecosystems in North America. That sets us apart from other groups with different goals. And our scientific emphasis continues to shine through all of our work.

Science on the Ground

Here in the Southeast where I am based (and where science shows we have a serious deficit in protected lands relative to the sheer numbers of species), Wildlands Network has emerged as a leader in conservation science. Working with our partners at Clemson University, we used a massive university supercomputer to map out habitat connectivity priorities for 7 species inhabiting the region stretching from Virginia to Florida. Our efforts also helped lead Clemson post-doc Paul Leonard to develop an entirely new software package (G-Flow) for more efficient connectivity analysis. See Wildlands Network’s press release.

We’re also several years into a long-term camera-trapping project in the red wolf recovery area in eastern North Carolina. When anti-wolf agitators made the claim that the wolves were “decimating the wildlife” in North Carolina, we responded with: Hey, let’s see what the actual evidence shows, and set up more than 20 cameras across Alligator River and Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuges. In the interest of full transparency (which is often another casualty in this modern era), we’ve been posting all of our animal photos to Flickr for the public to judge the impact of wolves for themselves. (In a nutshell, there are still plenty of deer and wild turkey in the red wolf recovery area, not to mention many black bears).

So you see, Wildlands Network remains committed to relying on science and facts to inform our work and conservation designs in North America. To the marchers who will stand and be counted on April 22nd on behalf of science, we salute you (and many of us will be joining you, too!). Keep marching, keep demonstrating, keep resisting, until we get our science-driven government back, and until the public fully realizes what is at stake.

By the way, I did eventually figure out how to get my hands on that enormous underwater dreadnaught. The next time I saw the snapping turtle swimming close to shore, I took off my shoes and wiggled my bare toes in the water in an alluring way. When the turtle came closer to see if I was edible, I jumped in and grabbed the rear of its shell as I landed with a muddy splash. What happened next?

Let’s just say that trying to pull a large snapping turtle to shore while standing waist-deep in water wasn’t my best idea. But both the turtle and I escaped unharmed, and to this day I remain fascinated by snapping turtles—which are often top carnivores in their own right, at least outside of the range of alligators.

* Trophic Cascades: Predators, Prey, and the Changing Dynamics of Nature (Island Press, 2010).

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