As one would expect, wildlife protection follows a much different course in Texas than here in New Jersey, or for that matter most of the mid-Atlantic states. The cause of species like shorebirds are truly a second priority compared to game- or sportfish. And all three take a back seat to the needs of business. Talk to Texans defending wildlife and you’ll hear some truly heroic and passionate stories of protection against the odds, but you’ll also see some very unusual proponents.
For example, take David Newstead and Billy Santifer. David, who works for the Coastal Bend Bays and Estuaries Program, knows the New Jersey-sized Padre Island National Seashore and its back bay, the Luguna Madre, as better than almost anyone. Except for Billy Santifer, a crusty fishing and birding guide who has spent most of his working life on the island. They are friends but as different as two people can be. College-educated David operates in the familiar world of most biologists: meetings, conflicts with agency functionaries and hard field work in the baking sun or cold wind, all for the sake of protecting birds.
After two tours in Vietnam, Billy– the so-called Padre of Padre Island – has spent nearly his entire adult life living and working on this mostly unpopulated island. Now he leads fishing or birding trips for both the elite and unwashed while organizing efforts to clean up beach trash and counting birds for people like David and I. Despite their striking differences, he and David are one when it comes to protecting this wild beach.
Seeing them together gave me hope because one of the biggest challenges facing wildlife conservation today is the gap between people like David and Billy. As with many issues in our life, there is a deep political fault line dividing people using the outdoors: sportsmen ( and women) tend to be Republicans and their non-hunting counterparts, such as birders, tend to be Democrats. It’s accepted today that environmentalism is a liberal cause while gun rights and resource exploitation are conservative causes. Yet when I was young man conservation did not fall along partisan lines; some users were Democrats, others Republicans, mostly defined by what they felt were other. more important considerations.
Now wildlife management agencies (those whose main constituents are sportsmen who support the agency by buying licenses and paying taxes on their equipment) tend to be staffed with Republicans. Conservation biology organizations that aim at preserving species and natural communities (whose constituents pay little if anything in user feesto agencies but support most conservation organizations) tend to be Democrats. How did the political parties turn these essentially non-partisan endeavors against each other?
There are many reasons, such as gun control and animal rights, but the resulting divide has neutralized the conservation of wildlife. It’s a perennial second priority. This is where the friendship and collaborative work of David and Billy are so important. They sincerely care for Padre Island and relax their ideology for its sake. They work together and their partnership inspires other to follow suit: David the birders, Billy the fishermen. Their partnership should be the model for our future. Otherwise, the welfare of wildlife will always be considered a secondary priority.