Tuesday, January 18, 2011


There's a popular saying among conservationist: "Extinction is forever."

Which is true, of course. Usually.

I well remember reading about the "extinction" of black-footed ferrets. I could not have imagined that 30 years later I would be watching wild ferrets run around at my feet. You can read how this is possible in today's blog for Cool Green Science.

Naturalists have often approached extinction in curious ways. Even into the early 1800s, many astute observers (including Thomas Jefferson) considered extinction to be a biological impossibility.

Later, when extinction was established as fact, many naturalists did not consider conservation to be realistic. Instead, they rushed off to "collect" the last remaining specimens for museums and collections, as recounted in Mark V. Barrow Jr.'s excellent book Nature’s Ghosts: Confronting Extinction from the Age of Jefferson to the Age of Ecology.

William Hornaday traveled west to shoot some of the last remaining wild bison for museum exhibits. He unapologetically killed as many as he could. He considered their extinction inevitable, and as such believed that the public should at least be able to see them in museums.

In later years, Hornaday had a change of heart. He later became one of the key figures in saving the bison.

Fortunately, conservationists have come a long way. Or have they? Sure, they no longer rush off to shoot the last remaining individuals of a species in the name of science.

But read many environmental magazines or blogs, and you'll find a gloomy inevitability about extinction. It all seems so...hopeless.

Fortunately, there are many stories of hope, with the ferret being a prominent example. Consider also the history of many species we today take for granted--wild turkeys, peregrine falcons, elk.

And read the excellent tales on Jane Goodall's web site and in her book Hope for Animals and Their World--full of examples of people restoring nearly extinct species, often against very long odds.

The risk of constant pessimism among conservationists is that it leaves young people and the general public with the sense that there is nothing that can be done. And that's simply not true, as those wild ferrets prove.--Matt Miller

Photo: Black-footed ferret by Jon Hall, Mammalwatching.com

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