Friday, January 30, 2015

Selling a Not Endangered Species

The Washington Post and other news sources are reporting that the National Park Service is trumpeting the fact that a game camera has taken a couple of pictures of a "Sierra Nevada" red fox in Yosemite National Park

One thing not said is that red fox can be seen all over California, and there is no way to know, short of genetic testing, if the fox seen was actually a "Sierra Nevada" red fox.

It might very well be true.

But even if it is, so what?

You see, the Sierra Nevada red fox is not a species, but a sub-species.

A sub-species, by definition, is not a species.

The Sierra red fox is only "rare" today because the rise in the number of coyotes, absent the presence of wolves, means that fox numbers have plummeted in certain areas like Yosemite, while at the same time eastern red fox have invaded great swaths of California.

Sierra Nevada red fox do not consider themselves a separate species from regular red fox. They freely interbreed with "regular" red fox, a fact that has blurred the created-by-man notion that there is something unique and special to be "saved."

Now, to be clear, this is an old debate between "splitters" and "lumpers," but I have to say that the lumpers have it about right for the most part, and we know this because the critters themselves do not salute these subspecies distinctions very often.

What is driving the taxonomic elevation of sub-species is not sound science, but politics and the fame and grant money that comes from proclaiming even a subspecies rare.

A classic example is the northern spotted owl.

No such species.

The northern spotted owl is a sub-species of the very common spotted owl which breeds pretty much everywhere across the west and into northern Mexico. And even if we rise one level higher to the "true" species level (spotted owl), we find things are still a bit shaky! You see, spotted owls interbreed pretty freely with barred owls. So while it is very clear that northern spotted owls are not a species at all, one could argue that barred owls and spotted owls are essentially the same species to the point that the birds themselves are happy to admit it!

The push to elevate the northern spotted owl and the Sierra Nevada red fox to iconic status has a lot to do with politics.

Environmentalists seeking to protect old growth forests in the Pacific Northwest used the existence of a putative sub-species of spotted owl (and the lack of science-based education among the American masses) to push for forest protection.  

"Save the Spotted Owl" became a rallying cry, and knee-jerk reporters and direct mail responders never seemed to notice that spotted owls could be found everywhere. Tragically, to my way of thinking, the environmental movement did not seem to think saving old growth forests for their own sake was a powerful enough argument. I think it is. Save the damn forest! But let us not go down the road of lying-about-science for convenience sake, eh? There is only trouble down that path!

The Sierra Nevada red fox was elevated to iconic status when the Humane Society of the U.S. pushed to ban the use of leghold traps in California.

In a state where deer and pig are hunted hard, where cars kills scores of thousands of raccoons on the highway every month, where mountain lion and bear invade backyards, where coyotes are shot without thought, and where the state systematically kills hundreds of thousands of perfectly health dogs and cats every year, the anti-trapping groups did not think they had a very persuasive case to ban leghold traps.

They needed something else.

And once again, as with the spotted owl, they reached past sound science in order to elevate a sub-species to "endangered" level, even though there are more red fox in California today than at any time in the last 4,000 years.

In fact, there are now so many red fox in California, over such a wide range, that their presence is actually a very real threat to REAL endangered species -- ground nesting birds on the coast.

And so, the National Audubon Society suited up and sued the Humane Society of the U.S. in court to allow the use of leghold traps to protect real endangered species.

And guess what?  The National Audubon Society won.

Meanwhile, the Sierra Nevada red fox is still getting press.  And the fact that there are more red fox in California than ever before, is not. 


geonni banner said...

I suspected the whole "Sierra Nevada Red Fox" thing when I saw this on Huff Post yesterday. I thought, "Hmmmmm, I bet Terrierman will have something to say about this." Thanks for reinforcing my suspicions - the Red Fox is far from being endangered.

Gaddy Bergmann said...

I'm a conservation biologist, but I had a similar thought when I saw this bit of news. Sure, that red fox subspecies may be endangered, but the red fox species is one of the most successful and naturally widespread carnivorans on the planet. So what's all the worry about?

Seems like I can't go anywhere without being haunted by the "lumpers vs. splitters" debate. Taxonomy affects everything, especially conservation biology. Conservation is very important, but I think the problem is that people often want to sacrifice survival and function in the name of purity and history (sound familiar, kennel clubs?).

Sure, subspecies are worth recognizing and even protecting, as they sometimes have significant adaptations, like size or breeding time. But it's the species that is the biological unit, and it's the species that would be the biggest loss if it were to go extinct. Thankfully, that's not in the cards for red fox.