Special Feature By Bill Leeming
“It is with some frustration that I write this, my last wildlife article. After 25 years of writing, public speaking, and radio and television work in the wildlife field regarding its importance and protection, I am at my wits end with the lack of attention to, and chronic government mismanagement of ecological systems across the board in Ontario and Canada.
Whether the concern is invasive species, greenhouse gases/ global warming, wildlife species protection, Great-Lakes/fresh water concerns, resource extraction, etc, our government, at all levels, is not taking them seriously enough. The dramatically lowered water levels in Georgian Bay are nothing short of an ecological disaster for spawning fish, reptiles and amphibians, yet this issue seems to be falling on deaf ears at Queens Park and in Ottawa.
Policies geared towards protection of wildlife or the overall environment are either being eroded or consistently lack teeth to effect any substantive and positive change. As a result, I have decided to move on to other pursuits and leave the wildlife journalism and education to others with more patience.
However I would like to leave readers with one last article. Hopefully it will promote thought and action in some of you to take a greater involvement in protecting all wildlife and ecosystems.” Bill Leeming
While standing in line one day at a small grocery and supply store in central Ontario, I overheard a fellow ask the person next to him, “What’s the point in trying to save endangered species? If the thing is on the way out, so be it. It’s all those damned tree-huggers that are always raising a stink, trying to save this and that.”
I was shocked at the ignorance of the statement. I wanted to speak up and say hey buddy, it’s not as simple as that and thank goodness not everyone’s as apathetic about the environment as you seem to be. In that moment, I realized that this individual was a glowing example, due to his ego, lack of understanding, and absence of humility before nature, why we’re in the ecological mess that we are.
His comments encapsulated precisely what’s been wrong in North America since the first Europeans landed on this continent and in other parts of the world as well. The mindset was, and is still regrettably, that wildlife is something for us to over- manage, control, use and manipulate, or do away with if we so please. Historically this has been plainly evident in cases regarding predatory creatures such as bears, wolves, sharks, to name a few, where the species is perceived as a pest or even the remotest threat to safety. Unfortunately, despite our adoption of the belief in the value of bio-diversity and reams of environmental protection legislation, wildlife and ecosystems here in Canada, as well as around the world, appear to be losing the battle.
Since the industrial revolution and up until now, the rate of species extinction worldwide has reached catastrophic levels. It has been speculated that in just the last 400 years, or so, wildlife extinctions are between six and fifty times higher than during most of our planet’s history. And the biggest tragedy in all of this is, as the late biologist and author R.D.Lawrence once said to me “We know what we are doing wrong, but we continue to do it!”
Flora and fauna continue to disappear, while science frantically applies band-aid solutions. Although more often than not, as history will attest, the bandage is applied too late and the wound has been allowed to fester to a point where the dressing is ineffective. And meanwhile, the actions of humans who have created the problems in the first place, continue mostly unchallenged and unabated. Too often, science medicates the symptom rather than addressing the cause of the disease. And there’s no doubt our planet’s ecosystem is becoming more diseased. Again, we know what we are doing wrong, but we are allowed to continue to do it.
What’s the harm in one more hotel built next to a beach where endangered leather back turtles lay their eggs? What’s the harm in one more pipeline being built straight through caribou calving grounds? What’s the harm in building a gigantic subdivision smack-dab in the middle of the spotted owl’s nesting range?
What’s the harm in building a new four lane expressway for tourists that slices right through pristine and ecologically critical travel corridors for wolf , grizzly, black bear, and myriad other animals? What’s the problem with using our oceans and rivers as open sewers and garbage dumps? What’s the problem with polluting pure ground water aquifers? What’s the problem with allowing huge bloated oil tankers full of oil to pass through pristine and ecologically priceless wilderness areas?
Have we learned nothing from the Exxon Valdez spill?
Have we already forgotten about the recent ecological carnage caused by the gigantic BP oil leak off the coast of the U.S.?
What’s the problem with the extirpation, over hunting and rampant slaughter of large carnivore species like wolverine, grizzly bear, wolf, and cougar? In addition, look now at the peril facing the polar bear and the melting polar ice cap. Look at how few Florida panthers are left in the wild. Ask the fishermen in Newfoundland how they feel about their collapsed fishing industry or the absence of the once prolific gray whale.
Look at the massive island of plastic that exists at the convergence of several of the planets oceans, and the exhaustive over fishing of these waters on a global scale. Which, if allowed to continue largely un-checked, un-regulated and un-enforced, has the potential to create an underwater wasteland. DAMN THOSE TREE HUGGERS INDEED! Birds, reptiles, mammals and amphibians are all fair game. We have permanently lost and continue to lose members of these four groups and many that are not yet lost are considered either at risk, threatened, or endangered.
It is a moot point to examine the various catalysts that continue to exacerbate an already serious international environmental situation because we know what they are. Adding to the problem is the fact that we now, as a species on earth, number over 7 billion, thus perpetuating the ruination of the planet. The harsh reality is that bit by bit the healthy and intact parts of our natural world which still remain, are being continuously chipped away at. Our downfall will likely be a result of our overly consumptive, hedonistic and selfish view of our natural world.
Since about 1600, over 500 species ( and subspecies) of indigenous plants and animals have succumbed to extinction. It should be noted that these are not animals that have been naturally and slowly selected for extinction, over potentially thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of years. On the contrary, these animals and plants that have been snuffed out, within a few centuries or even decades. A classic example of this (only one of many) was the massacre of many millions of bison on the Great Plains which at one time made up one of the largest animal herds on the planet. They were wiped out within about 70 years.
And as another creature dies off in totality or is added to an endangered species list, we should all be looking in the mirror, because what affects them will eventually affect us. Their disappearance is a reflection of what we are doing to ourselves. The good news is that we still have some time to get things right!
It is an accepted and commonly held hypothesis by more than a few scientists that we are clearly killing the planet. The signs are all around us yet we cannot seem to slow the racing treadmill we’re on. But we must slow this treadmill and effect major corrections in our attitudes and actions, and radically stall the current rate of accelerated extermination of various life forms, if human kind is to survive.
Dr. David Suzuki once said to me, and I quote, ”Our failure to not adjust our full speed ahead, damn the environment and all else attitude, will culminate at some point in a collision with a rock wall. We are speeding toward that wall at a thousand miles an hour.” Currently the way humans live and treat our wildlife and the environment is not sustainable. However, understandably, today many are more worried about jobs and the economy rather than wildlife and environmental protection. But while everyone worries about the economy they should also keep one important point in mind.
Our economy is structured and based on a hugely consumptive, wasteful and polluting lifestyle, dictated by relatively short term monetary gain while conveniently forgetting about long-term ecological pain. Unfortunately we are now clearly in the era of long-term pain. It has been predicted that our economy, as we now know it, could conceivably, at some point in the future, largely unravel due to wide-spread ecological collapse. Some scientists and wildlife researchers involved in various fields of study, including myself, contend that if we do not soon make significant changes to the way we live and treat the planet, we won’t have much of an economy to worry about.
With the increasing destruction of wildlife and valuable, life sustaining ecosystems around the globe, we are doing ourselves great harm. Clearly, as an animal, we are connected to the very things we are destroying whether we accept this or not. The human species is no different than any other when it comes to our reliance on a healthy natural world for survival. Hiding our heads in the sand and hoping the issue goes away won’t help our planet, our children, or future generations beyond. Don’t become like that guy I heard in the grocery store. We all need to do our part individually, as well as force governments to be more ecologically accountable and protectionist.
If we choose not to embrace this reality, and decide not to heed a greater moral and ethical commitment to the protection of nature… we clearly do so at our own risk. Have we the will to change as much and as quickly as is required? Let’s all hope so.
Bill Leeming is a wildlife columnist, researcher and lecturer with a background in zoology. Leeming co-authored a paper with the late internationally known author and biologist R.D. Lawrence on wildlife and wild lands protection in Canada. Known endearingly as the “Wolf Man” by