It sounds like the start of a joke: Three conservationists walk into a bar on a wintry night in Missoula, Montana.
We’re colleagues: Two of us are scientists — myself and Peter Kareiva, The Nature Conservancy’s chief scientist — and the third is the local Conservancy program director, Caroline Byrd. This place, the Kettle House, is a favorite of ours — not only for its brand of brew (Cold Smoke Scotch Ale) but also for the mixed clientele (from poets to fishermen) and lively conversation.
This is where our argument begins about whether we are near one of the last "intact" places on Earth — those places that have not suffered species extinction in recorded history. It takes months to settle the score. But whether we should preserve such places or not is still an open question.
Caroline starts it. She’s prodding us to focus more attention on the gorgeous backdrop to the bar — the landscape officially known as the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem. (She rather dramatically calls it “The Crown of the Continent.”) It’s unique, she claims, and deserving of special protection.
To Peter and me, who work on global issues as opposed to local ones, this sounds like familiar hyperbole. "Look," I say, "last week we were in Florida and heard the same thing."
Then Peter rather unhelpfully points out that Caroline’s description, while vivid, lacks scientific merit: “Local landscapes are unique only to those who live there.”
Scientific reasoning rarely wins over emotion — especially in bars — and our argument becomes increasingly heated. Finally, Caroline gets our attention.
"This place is special," she says, "because it hasn’t suffered an animal extinction in the past 200 years. It is entirely intact at least since the time of Lewis and Clark."
Here now is the gauntlet thrown in the face of science: Disprove or shut up!
A few months later, Kareiva and I have maps spread across the floor — maps of the Crown of the Continent and its species' ranges. We’re going through dozens and dozens, looking at historic and current ranges, trying to find just one extinction. We fail.
From wolf to grizzly, from bighorn sheep to bull trout, what was then is now. The Crown of the Continent truly is unique in the Lower 48 states.
We look further. A larger analysis using more than 300 species shows that this ecosystem is among only a handful of places in the world that seem to have entirely escaped post-industrial extinctions.
Our analysis turns up other surprises. For example, despite low human densities, the deserts of the world are far from intact, having lost species through hunting and resource competition. Grasslands are similarly impaired.
Caroline is right — the Crown of the Continent is one of the most intact places on Earth.
But what does this mean for a conservation group? Are such places worthy of special protection? The question is not one that a scientist can easily answer.
The value of a totally intact landscape versus a slightly impacted landscape is hard to quantify. Some lost species will be noticed; others, frankly, will not.
Every place, it seems, is precious to those who live there; it’s difficult to argue that some are more precious than others. Nevertheless, time and resources are limited, and triage is a necessary strategy in urgent-care treatment.
When the goal is to protect a little bit of everything on the planet, can a conservation organization afford to protect places for non-scientific reasons? Simply because of human values? Aesthetics? Emotional ties that bind people to place?
If Lewis and Clark were to repeat their journey across the continent today, perhaps just a few days’ walk would be through landscapes with the original fauna intact. I hope that they would again pause here in Missoula — this time appreciating sights and creatures long forgotten in other parts.
Perhaps they would even debate the meaning of that discovery, and then settle the score over a brew at the Kettle House.
The opinions expressed in "Wild Life" are the author's. They should not be construed as the position of The Nature Conservancy or any of its other employees.February 24, 2011