November 15, 2023 | By:

Tenacious Beasts: Wildlife Recoveries That Change How We Think about Animals

Christopher J. Preston, Tenacious Beasts: Wildlife Recoveries That Change How We Think about Animals. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2023.

Christopher J. Preston, Tenacious Beasts: Wildlife Recoveries That Change How We Think about Animals. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2023.

We could all use some good news now and then, especially those of us concerned about current trends for wildlife and biodiversity. We hear a constant drumbeat of news about endangered species, extinction or imminent extinction of at-risk species, and myriad challenges to wildlife from expanding human population growth and development. Can there be any good news? Turns out there is some, and Christopher Preston has been in search of it. A professor of environmental philosophy at the University of Montana, Preston opens with a summary of bad news for wildlife, writing “despite the grim outlook and despite the relentless stream of bad news, some animal populations are on the rebound.” Asking how this could be possible, he sets out in pursuit of an answer.

Preston’s quest takes him from Italy’s Appenines, through Germany, the Netherlands, and England, to America’s east coast, Montana, Washington State, and Alaska. He organizes his inquiry into sections titled “Farmland Villains,” “Prairie Puritans,” “River Engineers,” “Forest Managers,” and “Ocean Partners, and “each section tracks one or more animals and reveals how their numbers have bucked the larger trends.” He asks, “how things can go so right when so much is going wrong.” Explanations differ revealing the complexities of species resurgences, raising questions about the human interventions that have been a part of most of the species recoveries he describes. “Prairie Puritans,” for instance, examines the story of the bison and asks “whether some returning wildlife are more authentic than others and whether this has anything to do with genes.” Many bison roam the plains today, back from the brink of extinction, but a big concern is how many of them are uncontaminated by cattle genes, as ranchers tried to crossbreed them to create a more robust cow. The return of bison, he writes, highlights a conundrum around a range of animal returns. “If people and fences have to be involved in the recovery of wildlife and if this involvement degrades the animal’s authenticity, what does it really mean to restore an iconic animal like a bison? Or to put this another way, when an animal like the bison recovers, can you be sure you have got the right animal back?”

Christopher Preston is a philosopher, and while most of the people he interviews are biologists and ecologists who can explain how and why the species involved have declined and then resurged, he applies the perspectives of environmental philosophy and ethics to reveal core issues in the processes that have led to species recoveries. The many cases of wildlife recovery in Europe and America he examines range from northern spotted owls, wolves, bison, beavers, Marsican brown bears, and sea otters to humpback whales among others. He also examines, in “River Engineers” and “Ocean Partners,” how the resurgence of beaver helped heal riparian diversity, and sea otters restored kelp, with many benefits to humans as well as natural systems. These animals should be viewed as partners, their resurgence applauded and encouraged, though in every case some humans in the prospective partnerships, be they ranchers or abalone divers, are not happy about such resurgences. In each case of resurgence he covers, Preston visits the ground or water where it is happening and meets with key people, scientists or activists who are involved in the recovery. One example involves efforts to recover the Northern Spotted Owl in the Pacific Northwest. This iconic bird of mature conifer forests was listed as endangered and all the tools of the Endangered Species Act were applied to its recovery over the past few decades, but the species has continued to decline anyway. While heroic and controversial measures were taken to protect its habitat, scientists concluded the reason it was not recovering was an invasion of spotted owl habitat by the bigger, more aggressive, barred owl that moved in from the east and was out-competing it in its northwest forest niche. The barred owl range reaches across North America, while the northern spotted owl is a subspecies with limited range and thus has nowhere to go to escape its competitor.

Concluding that humans had, with their settlement patterns, made this dispersal of the barred owl into spotted owl habitat possible, the solution decided upon was to reduce the population of the barred owl in spotted owl territory by killing them with shotguns. Here was a management dilemma “that brought the human role in the survival of wild animals into focus. A vulnerable species needed a hand if it were to stand any chance of recovering from a precarious position. But the helping hand was not benign. It was wrapped around the stock of a well-oiled firearm.” Preston agreed that the case was strong that the spotted owl was “conservation reliant,” but did this justify shooting barred owls? Donning his ethicist hat he examines the conditions that must be met to justify shooting one owl to save another. “First, you needed to be extremely confident the villainous owl is responsible for the decline.” Next, you needed to be sure the barred owl invasion was a consequence of human influence. Third, were there options other than killing the barred owls? When he laid out these conditions to the biologists conducting the owl-killing experiment, which was successful in taking pressure off the spotted owl, they argued the first two conditions were met and there were no other viable alternatives. Preston wraps up this case as follows:

The conundrum in the Okanagan-Wenatchee Forest is becoming more and more common in recovery contexts. Human activities are implicated in the decline of so many species. Given this culpability, isn’t there a strong obligation to help them make a return? And doesn’t this obligation sometimes involve interventions that seem highly unnatural? Perhaps there was a time when leaving animals alone was their best option. Perhaps that time may return. But in the interim, for some species, it might be necessary to wade into the system to help them survive.

The case of these owls is the most ethically fraught of those Preston examines in this book, but it certainly raises the core issue of how much humans should try to intervene to recover endangered species populations in the Anthropocene and of where to draw the line in such interventions. The cases in this book describe species that are resurgent, usually with a lot of human help. The owl case is one in which after applying the strongest habitat-oriented tools available, at great cost, the goal of recovering is failing, forcing managers to use extreme and ethically questionable methods. Preston does not resolve the dilemma, though it bothers him. He describes the dilemma clearly, finally leaving it to the reader to weigh the conditions she thinks should bear on the situation and decide what she thinks is right in such a situation.

The core message Preston sends in Tenacious Beasts is that wildlife resurgence requires “different approaches to the creatures that will live among us.” The view of people and wildlife existing in different domains, he asserts, must be rejected, and “involves thinking of otters and people as existing in a coupled system. There is not one area permanently reserved for otters and one area permanently set aside for people. There is fluid entanglement of both.” Such a view requires a “different kind of ethic.” Such an ethic, a Tlingit artist and conservationist told him, involves “preserving value rather than extracting it,” and the example he provided was the way his tribe had interacted with herring over generations. They were partners and kin, a very different view, obviously, than those who think of wild creatures primarily as commodities. Preston sums up his conclusions as follows:

Wildlife resurgence demands different approaches to the creatures that will live among us. The contours of these approaches are becoming clear. The fanatical separation between the wild and civilized that drove colonial powers – and then their environmentalism – must soften. The obsession with a species’ genetic purity common among many conservationists may, in some contexts, have to be relaxed. Over-confidence about expertise at manipulating complex systems like rivers must be restrained. Acts of assistance may be necessary for some vulnerable species on a long-term basis. And new ethical attitudes toward wildlife, including partnership and reciprocity, must be nourished.

Preston proves himself a very thoughtful analyst in this book and such conclusions will be provocative for many working on wildlife conservation.

Throughout the book Preston seems to reject the idea of wilderness, arguing that many wildlife resurgences would be well-served by a more wild nature, but that such nature is often not available. He explains, for instance, in the section devoted to wolf resurgence in Europe, that the idea of wilderness must be “softened,” as expressed in the quotation above where he uses the word “environmentalism” rather than wilderness. He writes that “Muir and Roosevelt’s legacy, in other words, the one cemented in the U.S. Wilderness Act, creates a barrier to the kind of thinking that would support modern European wolves. The idea that wildernesses are reserved for the wildeor (wild beasts) and that people can live only in protective isolation from them is a damaging fiction.” This is, in my view, a misreading of the Wilderness Act and suggests that there are no differences between the European situation and that in America where the Wilderness Act is in effect. What he calls “protective isolation” is not, in all cases a “damaging fiction.” Many species benefit from such isolation. In fact, they need it. One change in our thinking should be to ask what the animals need, like wolverines, grizzly bears, and the Porcupine caribou herd.  It would be more helpful to suggest that where possible wild places, especially big wild places that would nurture resurgences, should be preserved in their wild state. At the same time, we should embrace the idea that people and wildlife can, in fact, live together in many instances as partners and, as the Tlingit told him, as kin. Such a view of wildeors as kin would be for many a big leap, but is a worthy aspiration.

Preston is a fine writer, covering many cases clearly and efficiently, wasting no words. He nicely mixes his analysis with quotations from people involved in the cases he profiles. He has done his research, traveling extensively to explain with firsthand accounts the issues involved in the resurgences he explores, and mining what literature there is about them. While he is professionally an academic and a philosopher he writes for the general reader with a very engaging style. While he raises many difficult questions, the good news he recounts is welcome and a relief.

Preston makes us think about our beliefs, assumptions, and methods in wildlife conservation from his ethical perspective. This is a valuable contribution to the very challenging work of helping endangered wildeors recover in our world of the 21st century. Old ways of thinking need to be challenged, perhaps not wholly discarded but adapted to the current situation. He is clear that focusing on wildlife recoveries “is not to question the established wisdom about species loss. The truth cannot be doubted.” The recoveries inspire hope, and more importantly, describe the hard work to be done in changing how people think about wildlife, especially those on the brink, as so many species are today.

Order your own copy of the book here: Tenacious Beasts: Wildlife Recoveries That Change How We Think about Animals.

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Jeff Hoffman
8 months ago

The owl dilemma is very disturbing. It’s just like the dilemma that sometimes pesticides are the only way to remove non-native species. What this goes to show is that once broken, some things can’t be fixed. What that goes to show is that humans have to stop breaking things, specifically ecosystems, habitats, and other species.

As to wilderness: The whole planet should be wilderness. No one ever mentions this, but humans can live in wilderness, we just have to live as hunter-gatherers. The problem is that the vast majority of humans have lived as agriculturalists for so long that this concept isn’t even considered. Of course we need to return to viewing wilderness and wildlife as one with our own lives and our own species, but humans have a very long way to go before we can live like that again. As it stands now, humans have separated themselves so much from the natural world that they neither know nor care much if anything about it. Even well-meaning modern humans cause great harm because of this (feeding wild animals is a perfect example).

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