Monday, June 30, 2008

Living Museum Pieces

No, you won't find the animal pictured above roaming around the wilds of Idaho.

In fact, you won't find it roaming in the wild anywhere.

The Pere David's deer has been extinct in the wild for more than 1oo years. Native to China, the deer is believed to have once roamed sub-tropical marshlands in large herds. When French missionary Father Armand David visited China in the 1860's, only one herd was known to be in existence--on a game reserve owned by the emperor.

As is often the case with small numbers of animals on a small preserve, this isolated population of deer was vulnerable. They were all killed off by troops during the Boxer Rebellion.

However, some Westerners had illegally smuggled out a few individuals of Pere David's deer to stock British deer parks. At the time of its extinction in the wild, about 18 of the species remained at the Woburn Abbey deer park.

The Pere David's deer probably won't go extinct now. It does best in fenced reserves that offer marshy habitat. I took this photo on a Texas game ranch, where herds of Pere David's deer thrive. They can roam over fairly large areas, a fate certainly better than extinction.

But it's unlikely we'll ever see this species as a free-roaming population. A few have been reintroduced to a Chinese reserve, but the deer remains an animal of fenced, highly managed preserves. In essence, it's a living museum piece.

We can only guess what it was like to see Pere David's deer grazing in its native marshland habitat. We don't know how it dealt with predators, or how many lived in a herd.

Large mammals often fare the worst from the many threats posed by humanity--habitat fragmentation, poaching, deforestation, climate change. In the next century, many of our most iconic animals could join the Pere David's deer as living museum pieces--the black rhino, the mountain gorilla, the tiger, the panda, the polar bear.

But there's still time. Reintroduction programs offer hope for some species, like black-footed ferrets, but it's more cost-effective to save habitat now.

In the Northern Rockies, all the wildlife species that were here when Lewis and Clark explored this area are still here. You can still see herds of elk and mule deer, racing pronghorns, grizzly bears--one of the great concentrations of large mammals left on the planet.

As the West grows, we can create a future that includes these animals as part of the land, and part of our lives. But that will require conserving large landscapes. That's why projects like the Montana Legacy Project, of which The Nature Conservancy is a partner, are so vitally important. This project just announced the protection of 320,000 acres of forestlands in Montana, protecting some of the most important habitat in the "Crown of the Continent" ecosytem.

With projects like these elk and grizzly bears will remain a real part of our heritage, not objects in a museum. --Matt Miller

No comments: