Plans to return species to wild face setbacks

Sunday, September 15, 2002

The Associated Press

It is considered their best chance at survival and, sometimes, their last.

When habitat restoration alone won't sustain them, when there are so few creatures left that the odds of natural recovery are slim, establishing a new population of animals in the wild becomes the lifesaving solution for many of the nation's most imperiled species.

"It's emergency room treatment," says Ed Bangs, who oversees restoration of the gray wolf to the northern Rocky Mountains. "You've got a patient that's dying and you want to save their life. You do everything you can. And then you wheel in the next patient."

Wildlife reintroduction has become an integral part of the country's efforts to protect and restore endangered species. Without it, the California condor would likely have vanished from Western skies, the black-footed ferret disappeared from its prairies.

There would be no red wolves roaming refuges along the coast of North Carolina, nor gray wolves for tourists to view in Yellowstone National Park. Due to Bangs' program, that species is recovered in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana and could be removed from federal protection in those states next year.

Success and setbacks

But success stories often are overshadowed by setbacks. Whether by gun barrel or bulldozer, man rid the land of these creatures decades ago, and man remains one of the biggest roadblocks to restoration.

In California, commercial fishermen went to court after sea otters were found in a prohibited zone where the animals compete with man for profitable shellfish. In Delaware, developers challenged building restrictions stemming from a new population of Delmarva fox squirrels.

Lawsuits also come from the other side -- environmentalists who insist the government isn't doing enough to promote or sustain re-established species.

Then last year, the government shelved its own plan to reintroduce grizzlies in Montana and Idaho. Interior Secretary Gale Norton suspended the program following complaints from politicians and ranchers that the bears would put livestock and people at risk.

"It's not so much a biological issue. This whole thing is a social issue," says Carter Niemeyer, federal wolf recovery coordinator in Idaho. "We spend most of our time dealing with a concerned public, sometimes an angry public."

The animals don't always cooperate either.

Managers are considering scrapping a program to establish a second population of sea otters off the coast of Southern California after some died during relocation and others strayed from the territory. Of 140 otters moved in three years, 30 remain. The overall population of California otters is now in decline.

Programs involving captive animals face additional challenges. More than two dozen condors raised in zoos had to be removed from the wild because of adaptation problems such as roosting on the ground and interacting with people at swimming pools.

Forty-five of the 144 condors released in Arizona and California since 1992 died, some from lead poisoning after feeding on bullet-riddled carcasses and others from colliding with power lines. Managers don't expect to meet their goal of 300 wild condors for at least another decade. There are 75 now.

"It takes a lot to bring it about," condor recovery leader Bruce Palmer says of reintroduction.

Back in time?

At the heart of the debate over these programs are two divergent ideas of how this puzzle that is our nation fits together. Can we put the pieces back the way they once were, or have new parts created a landscape that can no longer be altered?

"While we may all have this view of what the 'wild' ought to be, we don't have it anymore," says Caren Cowan of the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association, which sued unsuccessfully to stop the Mexican wolf program. "There are a lot of people around a lot of roads that weren't there 50 years ago.

"You can't turn back the clock."

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