Is It Time to Mess with Mother Nature?

Global warming could force preservationists to become zookeepers and gardeners


| July - August 2008



During the past three years Russ Bradley has been checking on the breeding sites of the gray burrow-nesting Cassin’s auklet on the Farallon Islands. The islands, just off the Northern California shore, are a craggy paradise for hundreds of thousands of birds. But when it comes to the auklets, Bradley has been finding abandoned eggs, dead cue ball–sized chicks, and skinny, faltering fledglings.

“Most of the chicks have died,” says Bradley, a research biologist with PRBO Conservation Science, a nonprofit founded as the Point Reyes Bird Observatory. “This was as complete a failure response as we’d ever seen before. And we’d been following this species for 35 years.”

The apparent culprit: Ocean currents, redirected by rising sea temperature, have swept out of range the millions of tiny krill that the adult birds scoop into their beaks, chew into purple smelly goo, and then spit up for their young. In other words, this unprecedented starvation wave may be a result of global warming.

Bradley is one of the experts who know most about the auklet die-off. Just the same, he’s adamant in his belief that he should not attempt to save any of the dying chicks. To do so, he says, would be considered unnatural and unscientific. “We try to maintain ourselves as scientists. But we really feel for the birds,” Bradley says.

In the world of natural preservation, it’s not just scientists who take this don’t-mess-with-Mother-Nature stance. Since the 1960s, the idea that natural preservation consists mostly of letting nature take its course—absent human environmental disturbance—has been doctrine among public parks bureaucrats, biologists, environmentalists, rangers, and other members of the vast landscape of individuals and organizations involved in preserving America’s natural environment.

With the advent of global warming, however, this hands-off approach is rapidly becoming quaint. Mountain lakes are disappearing along with the glaciers at Montana’s Glacier National Park. The pika, a cool weather–loving mountain rodent, is vanishing from the Sierra Nevada. Rising seawater threatens to salinize the freshwater ecosystems of the Everglades and submerge beach habitat along the Northern California coast. And an increasingly hot and dry climate is projected to kill 90 percent of the trees at Joshua Tree National Park.