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Why Some Biologists Are Abandoning Their Faith In Total Conservation

You can’t save everything when the world is melting.

Photographer Mark Mahaney
November 29, 2016

Gregor W. Schuurman has a long beard, blue eyes, and the ruddy look shared by scientists who spend a great deal of time outside. Seven years ago, he got one of his first assignments as a newly minted conservation biologist: to go to the sandy flats and rolling dune scapes of Great Lakes country in Wisconsin and help count a tiny, endangered cornflower blue butterfly called the Karner blue. The Karner blue is a delicate and iridescent creature, best known at that point for being named by the Lolita novelist and hobby lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov.

As with most species, the Karner blue is intimately connected to another being’s fate: its larvae have adapted to exclusively eat the leaves of wild blue lupine, a stalk-like plant ensconced in a cone of tiny flowers that bloom in shades from dusky violet to cobalt. And lupines, lately, have had a very hard time, withering fast in the too-hot summers that climate change has made the new normal.

Still, in the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore park, it seemed the butterflies were making a cautious comeback, showing up in greater numbers for a few years. Then, during the unusually warm summer of 2012, the Karner blues went poof. “They just blinked out,” Gregor said, snapping his fingers. Exceptionally high temperatures that spring pushed some Karner caterpillars to hatch before the blue lupine bloomed, and they starved to death. The ones that hatched at the normal time starved, too, as the lupine wilted in the summer heat.

“We panicked. Everyone panicked,” said Gia Wagner, Indiana Dunes’s acting chief of resource management, in an interview with Smithsonian. “There was literally nothing anyone could do about it.” Despite two decades of work from conservation biologists, climate change had already made the final call. Though the Karner blue still lives on in a few places further north, where the summers are for the time being still temperate enough to sustain lupine, they haven’t been spotted in the Lakeshore park since.

For Gregor, the Karner blue’s sudden collapse prompted a revelation. The old model of total conservation — of trying feverishly to resist any changes in species or landscapes — was clearly no longer enough. Why work to restore a habitat or a species to its past conditions if success can be wiped out in a second?

Gregor doesn’t call himself a conservation biologist anymore. Instead he’s an “adaptation ecologist” on the National Park Service’s new adaptation team, a professional title that would have been unheard of a decade ago and is still quite rare. “There are no experts in adaptation. It’s so new,” he said, on a recent visit to Yosemite National Park. He’s worked in his new role for three years. “That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it makes me a middle-ager in the adaptation realm.”

The adaptation team is tasked with dragging hundreds of parks into and ideally through an age of mass extinction and climatic flux, the most unpredictable event — or cascade of events — the modern natural world has ever seen. And more than ever, Gregor is beginning to think making it through climate change will mean making tough decisions about what to save and what to let die. For the Park Service, that will mean accepting that even some iconic species and landscapes might not survive the coming decades — a radical concept for an agency that’s been bent on absolute conservation for the past 100 years.

Back in the 1960s, a federal report declared that “a national park should represent a vignette of primitive America.” The word “natural” shows up in the Park Service’s guiding documents more than 500 times. But, Gregor said, that has to change. Increasingly, the term “natural” just doesn’t apply. “Our definition of what is natural is the condition of the landscape in absence of human domination over it. That’s the language,” he said. “But climate change is literally human domination that touches every acre.”

For example, the Joshua trees of Joshua Tree National Park may decline by 90 percent by the end of the century, according to the research ecologist Cameron Barrows. And one day, the massive expanse of rare white gypsum dunes in New Mexico’s White Sands National Monument — so vast they are visible from space — might partially blow away. “Climate change could alter the ground and surface water that sustain the entire system,” Gregor and his colleagues wrote in a federal report about the dunes earlier this year.

Biologists know that the species that will survive are the ones with the greatest capacity to adapt. Gregor has gotten phone calls about moose showing up in Northern Alaskan parks, higher up than they’ve ever been seen, and cougars arriving in Southern Alaskan parks, where climate change is happening faster than pretty much anywhere else on Earth. “They are doing what comes naturally to them,” he said. “But they’re only migrating to those places because we’re digging up fossil carbon and releasing it into the atmosphere.” The line between natural and unnatural forces has perhaps never been so blurred.

But it’s impossible for scientists to know how much of a beating climate change will dole out. That depends on what humans will do about their greenhouse gas emissions, and a thousand other complex triggers that even the best climate models can’t completely predict. Will winters in Alaska warm by 4 degrees by 2100, or by 16 degrees, both of which federal scientists consider plausible? What creatures could possibly stick it out when the habitat they’ve spent millennia evolving for suddenly changes in a matter of decades? It’s Gregor’s job to figure that out, and the short answer is: not many.

“Elephants aren’t going to grow wings. A lot of species have a low adaptive capacity to change,” he said. “Like the butterfly.”

In Yosemite, Gregor looked out over a ridge of dead pine trees towering dryly over the landscape, a common sight in California of late. About 2 percent of trees used to perish in Northern California each year; now, according to researchers in nearby Sequoia National Park, around 50 percent do. “Trees are dying of drought here,” he said. “We can’t stop that everywhere. We can stop it in a few places, if we want.”

Faced with those tough choices, Gregor is finding new faith in a certain kind of darkness: nature will still be here after the worst of climate change has enveloped the planet. It won’t look like what we think of when we think of “nature” now. Some animals will be missing, some will have moved. Entire topographies may disappear, or lose their fundamental texture, or grow entirely new ones. And since we’re all headed into this unknown together, we’d be wise to take on a more expansive view of what nature is supposed to look like, starting now.

In the world of professional adaptation, that means a lot of improvisation. “The tools we use, the words we use, we’re basically inventing them as we need them,” Gregor said. One example is scenario planning, originally a military tactic used to prepare for several possible outcomes, even seemingly outlandish ones.

“Climate change is literally human domination that touches every acre.” —Gregor W. Schuurman

In the summer of 2012, the brand-new adaptation team met with officials at parks in the New York City area for a theoretical exercise, to “just try and flesh out plausible climate futures,” as Gregor explained. Someone at that meeting raised the possibility of the N.Y.C. subway tunnels flooding. “That seemed inconceivable,” Gregor said, but they charted out the scenario anyhow, imagining a future, decades away, when seas would be higher and warmer, the perfect combination for a devastating hurricane. Within a few months, Hurricane Sandy hit New York, bringing that exact subway-flooding scenario to life.

More recently, the team put together a report for Badlands National Park, where there’s been a lot of effort to save the black-footed ferret, an adorably stout and very endangered little creature. Roughly 1,000 of them exist in the U.S., and like the Karner blue butterfly, the ferret’s diet consists entirely of another species: prairie dogs, which in turn require certain grasses that are tall but not too tall. Complicating matters, the prairie dogs are also dangerously susceptible to a flea-borne plague, which conservationists have already been painstakingly trying to fight by hand-dusting each prairie dog hole with repellant to shoo away fleas. But changing weather is another threat entirely.

Gregor’s team worked through four likely scenarios for how the climate in the park might change. If it gets hotter and drier, the tall grasses would struggle to grow, helping the conservationists protect the prairie dogs that feed the ferrets. But if it gets hotter and wetter, the tall grasses would almost certainly flourish, growing too tall and driving out the endangered ferret’s fuzzy little food source. In any scenario, it’s going to get hotter, which means more fleas — and more plague, which could spell doom for the prairie dogs anyway.

After Gregor and his team leave, it will be up to the Badlands National Park to choose where to place its bets. Officials could risk spending money on conservation that could be abruptly undone, or they could adopt new tactics, like bringing in bison to mow down the tallest grasses. Then there’s the third option: cut their losses, and quit trying to save the black-footed ferret now. Either way, it forces existential questions about how the park should look in a radically changed future — of what the park, and their profession, is really for. They’ll have to be ready. On the final pages of one of their reports, Gregor’s team included an unsubtle warning: a stock image of a man with his head submerged in a sandpile.

This year Gregor was awarded permanency at the Park Service, the federal equivalent of tenure. He now sees this murky business of adaptation as the work of the rest of his life. “I didn’t get into biology to manage the decline of species — I wanted to do the glory stuff,” he said, meaning the heroic saving of endangered species. “But that’s not the job we have today.”

As we drove past a clearing, the dead trees parted, and we could see over the whole of Yosemite Valley, with the iconic curved rock face of the Half Dome formation in the distance. “It’s kind of like that quote: ‘When we celebrate the Enlightenment, we should celebrate the people in the Dark Ages who kept the light going,’” he said. Gregor is keeping the light of environmental work going now because there’ll be something on the other side. We just don’t know what.




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