Conserving Wildlife, sustainable land use

sportsmen and birders working together in SC


My journey through the south ended at a gated community on the South Carolina coast called Harbor Island.  Like other gated islands off the SC coast, Harbor Island is exclusive to most homeowners and renters.   One might categorize Harbor Island as being on the low end of this narrow spectrum, Hilton Head and other nearby islands are bigger with much wealthier residents.     Regardless, the island is a wonderful place to spend time on this coast, one of the most beautiful of the eastern US.

Shorebirds, skimmers and terns on the south end of Harbor IslandI came to trap red knots with South Carolina Division of Fish and Wildlife biologists Felicia Sanders and her staff Nick Wallover and Janet Thibault.   We focused on the unmanaged spit on the south end of the island — at the inlet separating it from the next island south.   Our team included residents of the island and a few passers-by who we convinced to join us after we made our catch of 135 knots.

These knots are part of the Southeast US coast population that are apparently stable in contrast to the rapidly-dwindling long distance population that winters in South America.   Places like Harbor Island are of growing importance to our efforts to recover shorebird numbers, but this island represents something more than good shorebird habitat.

ACE Basin project boundaries It is also part of the ACE (Ashepoo-Combahee-Edisto Rivers) watershed, a national estuarine research program run by NOAA whose goal is to preserve no less than the entire watersheds of these three coastal rivers.   After my long journey through the rural south this was a beacon of hope, a feasible way for agencies and citizens to help create a novel conservation partnership that is in-but-not-of government.  The partners have bridged the gap that separates conservationists these days, from Duck Unlimited to the Nature Conservancy, bringing together the interests of people from many different backgrounds thus creating a truly formidable conservation alliance.

This may be the only way for conservationists to overcome the growing number of natural resource problems.  But I can’t help asking these two questions.  First, while budgets dwindle and the American public focuses on more existential concerns, like finding or keeping a decent paying job, why have conservationists split their considerable political power into competing factions?   Is the need to please anti-hunting activists so great that we must betray a fundamental union of people who care most about wild animals and landscapes?

Second, why do the people who love birds, a force of nearly 70 million, stand by while our natural landscapes are paved over or reduced to zombie lands whose life’s blood enriches a few at the expense of many.  I often hear colleagues lament the lack of public attention to natural resource problems (e.g., collapse of shorebird populations, overexploited fish populations, destruction of bobwhite quail populations by industrial agriculture practices).  Perhaps it time to stop focusing on the inadequacies of the American public, after all, we as citizens have too many other important things to deal with.  Instead, we should look in the mirror and ask ourselves why conservationists aren’t standing up for rural people and animals that have no voice.