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the decline of quail and red knots – what does it say about conservation?

In my last two blogs (here and here) I have described the separate plight of red knots and bobwhite quail, two birds at the opposite ends of life history strategies: one a homebody who wants to go no further than their own breeding territory, the other flying as far from their territory as one can in this big round world. Quail produce young with abandon hoping sheer numbers will overcome the suffering and loss that is their lot in life. Knots produce a relative few offspring banking on the virtues of a long life as the key to survival of their species. Yet both are innocents without a voice in a world of loud voices. Why aren’t they being heard? Or more realistically, why aren’t the people who care about these and other birds not being heard?

Birders at Hieslerville WMA impoundments. Photo by Jan van der KamOne might first argue, it’s politics as usual. One side is all for it, the other against it, so nothing gets done. It’s the usual reason why people ignore the welfare of others, but here it doesn’t apply. Quail, championed by hunters, are animal republicans; red knots championed by birdwatchers are animal democrats. Quail are the feature of initiatives supported by hunters, who are concerned at least as much by the loss of the right to hunt or to own a gun — a view that is considered “conservative”. Knots are the featured species of initiatives that appeal to those who characteristically worry over the welfare of animals or the threats that endanger them – an obsession that is viewed as “liberal”. Not withstanding the fact that neither group is gaining ground in saving their respective species, one can’t really say they don’t care about these birds.

With all this caring, why does it add up to nothing more than good will and programs that can’t meet the challenges that both quail or red knots face?

One way to look at this is to equate our care for wildlife with the money we pay for their welfare (some people invest their care in volunteer efforts to help wildlife although this group is small). Most invest money, some donating to groups, others pay for licenses or permits. The amount of money paid could be seen as a crude measure of our collective concern for the future of wildlife in this country.

87.5 million people participate in wildlife related recreation.(from USFWS Survey of Fishing and Hunting and Wildlife Related Recreation (2006)Supporting wildlife related non-profit groups is the backbone of the system that focuses on red knots and other species like them. It adds up to a lot of people, but in truth, these folks are only a fraction of the 71 million people who say they care for wildlife. In NJ, where surveys show 1.2 million people identify themselves as caring for wildlife, less than 100,000 belong to non-profit conservation groups. It is a guess how many more simply make donations, but its not likely to be many more. Does this mean bird lovers don’t care?

Buying licenses and permits is the backbone of the system that supports game species like quail. Here, the actual number of people paying is more closely related to the people who care, as measured by the number of hunting permits they purchase. But it fails the quail for exactly this reason — as quail numbers dwindle, so do quail hunters and the funding provided to manage the species. In NJ the population of hunters that pay for the sake of quail is as small as the quail population because the season has been closed. Does this mean that hunters have given up on the future of quail?

If not then why aren’t birders and hunters paying more to create a better conservation system? The most familiar story is, in these difficult times most people can’t afford better conservation. We are just overwhelmed with more important concerns, or there are just too many people out of work to be concerned for wildlife. But this doesn’t square with the facts — fully a third of US residents care enough about wildlife to leave their homes to appreciate wildlife, in one way or another. To do this, they pay for expensive equipment and extravagant tours or adventures, and often travel great distances to make it all happen. Is it possible that these wildlife loving people want to consume wildlife without paying for conservation system as though all of gods creatures will manage and protect themselves. Do they really believe that species like quail and red knots will suddenly spring back without a benovelent hand? Has America given up it responsibility for wildlife?

This is actually a well told story, by both conservationishts who lament the lack of concern and the unscrupulous who would profit from it. Its similar to the often told story that Americans are growing lazy and soft. This story tells us we no longer care to compete in the world economy because we are pampered and want to get rich quick or want someone or the government to take care of us. The truth is far different. Paul Begala of Newsweek refuted this often told story by describing how Americans works harder now than almost any other western democracy. We have less vacation time, work more hours/week and are more productive with our time spent working. Yet the story of our profligacy is repeated so often it takes on the certainty of truth.

This may be the case with America refusal to engage in conservation. Maybe Americans do care about wildlife more than conservationists, and those that oppose them, think. But like our work ethic is failing to produce better lives for most people, our conservation ethic does not create better lives for wildlife. How can this be so?