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Conservation: Examining the Myth of Abundance

As we try to manage species at certain population levels, are we basing our expectations on conditions that no longer exist?

Conservation: Examining the Myth of Abundance

While sage grouse populations have declined across the West, they may be settling at more sustainable levels given the current habitat. (Shutterstock image)

Think about the narratives we love to tell each other—and the non-hunting majority of our fellow Americans—about how we hunters and anglers brought back the nation's wildlife populations. We speak sort of defensively, ready to argue with those who can’t understand how we could chase down, kill and then eat something that we cherish.

But we're often stumped when a critic asks us about all those animals we didn't bring back, either to huntable numbers or at all. Those are the passenger pigeons, the trumpeter swans, the Atlantic salmon and the wild bison, among others.

We have a good reason to be caught flat-footed when confronted with fixing something that was never ours to fix, or when blamed for a condition that we've never known. Behavioral psychologists call it "shifting baseline syndrome." It's a way of explaining how our idea of "normal" changes over time.

You know this syndrome even if you don't have a term for it. Think of the street where you grew up. My guess is that it's changed since you were a kid. Maybe some of the houses have been replaced by bigger homes, or a convenience store now sits in that vacant lot where you used to play capture the flag. Or maybe it's gone the other way, a corn field where homes once stood.

If you've lived in that same area for most of your life, you probably hardly notice the change because you've seen the slow evolution from what was there decades ago to what's there now.

The same thing can apply to our wildlife populations. It's a sort of generational amnesia, a casual forgetting of the way things were because we slowly grow accustomed to the way they are. This shifting baseline syndrome helps explain two diametrically opposed trends that define wildlife management in America right now.

On the one hand are the restoration biologists, all the do-gooders who are trying to bring back populations of wild things to the levels that existed before we had McRibs and "The Bachelorette." Our national Endangered Species Act is powered by this way of thinking, that if we only throw more research and habitat protection at rare species, we'll be able to restore them to abundance. But it's often an impossible task, partly because shifting baseline syndrome blinds us to the realities of the current world, in which habitat has been permanently lost to all the necessities of a modern economy.

Many of today's deer hunters have become accustomed to numbers of whitetails unimaginable a century ago. (Shutterstock image)

Don't get me wrong. I'm a proponent of our commitment to restoring endangered species. It's a good example of our national resolve, and besides, the alternative is pretty bleak. Simply standing by and watching species wink out runs counter to conservation.

The other trend is managing species at artificially high levels.

Take sage grouse as an example. These prairie birds are perennial candidates for federal protection because their populations have plummeted in the last half-century. As someone who lives in sage grouse country, I can attest to the decline that I've seen in my own (relatively) short lifetime. Yeoman work has been done to keep sage grouse in the sagebrush sea of the interior West, and yet most researchers note that our national population of these birds has greatly fallen from the clouds of grouse described by Western homesteaders.

But maybe this is another sort of shifting baseline syndrome. What if those early homesteaders—by creating edge habitat, planting crops that attracted grasshoppers and other succulent insects—artificially lifted populations of sage grouse from their pre-settlement baselines? If that’s the case, then maybe current populations aren't as endangered as we think, but rather settling at a sustainable new normal abundance.

That sort of thinking also informs our national angst over declines in wild turkey populations. As we detailed in this column last month, biologists are fretting over range-wide drops in populations of turkeys, mainly the Eastern subspecies. There are certainly habitat deficiencies, poor weather conditions and even hunting-season structures that explain some of the decline.


But what if the meteoric rise in turkey populations in the years after we restored them to long-vacant habitat set our expectations of abundance at an unnaturally (and unsustainably) high level? The decline of turkeys may simply be a return to their sustainable populations.

If that's the case with turkeys, then it could also be the case with the species that we are proud of saying we recovered—and that almost all of us love to hunt: the white-tailed deer. Could we be living in a moment of artificially high deer numbers based on our shifting baseline syndrome?

Maybe. If that is the current situation, then we should take advantage of this abundance while we have it. In the future, our national deer population may go the way of that weedy capture-the-flag lot in your old neighborhood. And we'll struggle to remember how good we deer hunters had things back in the day.

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