Preserving Biodiversity in the Age of Climate Change

The dean of conservation biology has a message for young scientists: Get out of the lab

Hundreds of scientists are gathered in Oakland this week to share ideas on how to stem the tide of extinctions among plants and animals. On opening night of the inaugural North American Congress for Conservation Biology, they got an earful from Michael Soulé, professor emeritus at UC Santa Cruz, founder of the Wildlands Network and the Society for Conservation Biology. Considered the “father” of conservation biology, Soule is concerned that the work he started is getting bogged down in the lab. I sat down to talk with him at the conference. This is an edited version of the interview.

What were the biggest problems when you started working on conservation biology?

Lisa Cox/USFWS

Coastal sage scrub and riparian habitat on the San Diego Refuge.

I was a kid naturalist in San Diego. I went around collecting things and going to tide pools and playing in the chaparral, the coastal sage scrub. Those places are gone now; they’ve been bulldozed and they’re now housing developments. So I saw with my own eyes, and was gradually more and more horrified to see, everything I loved disappear, bulldozed.

Later, in the late ’70s and early ’80s, I recognized that human population growth was a tremendous factor in changing and shrinking habitats all over the world. And we recognized that pollution — in those days it was DDT — was a big factor in causing the disappearance of brown pelicans, for example, on the West Coast.

And that’s happened all over the world. It’s happening to rainforests now, it’s happening to coral reefs due to global warming and acidification in the oceans. Everywhere the human footprint is becoming increasingly evident and destructive. We’ve overdone the idea of dominion. We’ve become so dominant in the world, that there’s not room for anything else, or there soon won’t be, particularly with climate change.

What’s changed since you began?

Thirty-four years ago we didn’t understand the degree to which certain species have a tremendous impact on their ecological communities, disproportionate to their numbers and size.

The classic example is the consummate predator in North America, the wolf. People love to hate the wolf, and the same thing goes for sea lions. Fisherman love to hate sea lions. But these large creatures permit many other species to survive. When you remove, the wolf from an ecosystem,  the elk and deer become super-abundant. And when they’re super-abundant they eat everything in sight. So there’s nothing for other animals to eat, and their numbers become so numerous they actually prevent the restoration of forests. Back east the white-tailed deer, for example, are so abundant that seedlings of the most important forest trees don’t survive.

That’s kind of a domino effect. You remove the large predator from the system, and its prey animals become super-abundant. They destroy the vegetation, and with the vegetation they can also destroy the lives of many smaller animals. So the whole ecosystem is disrupted and loses diversity. It causes a kind of rolling extinction wave that goes through the ecosystem until the ecosystem has lost most of its diversity, and diversity is key to resilience in ecosystems.

We didn’t know that. So that’s one of the major part of enlightenments in ecology in the last 20 years, is a slow understanding of the impacts of removing these key species.

You’ve emphasized the importance of action beyond the research.

We’ve become a society of planners, of mappers, of conference goers, and we think that that’s doing something. But those things don’t accomplish anything really. They’re all in preparation for doing something, like changing a policy or protecting wildlife.

Most of our protected areas are becoming islands in a sea of development.
An automobile company doesn’t stop at designing an automobile, they build the automobile. That’s action. In conservation, action is protection on the ground, so that wildlife can survive. But most scientists these days would rather sit behind a desk, looking at a computer screen, and model or make maps. These are all steps toward that ultimate action, which is protection, but they often stop short of the action. They think, “That’s for somebody else to do, I’m a scientist, I don’t need to get out there and get my hands dirty and become an advocate.”

I say, go the final step, actually get out there and protect what needs to be protected. There’s a fear applied scientists have, that they’ll be thought of as too practical, and not interested enough in theory.

One of the things I’m encouraging young conservation biologists to do, is to get out from behind a desk, out from behind a computer screen and get out in nature. It’s not enough to just think about it, and write about it, and model it and map things, you have to actually protect things.

Is climate change a game-changer for conservation biology, or is it just another insult?

We’ve taken a continent, let’s say North America, and chopped it up into little pieces. The wilder areas are all isolated from one another. National parks are not connected to other National Parks. They might be connected by forests, but those forests are overhunted, over-logged and over-burned. So most of our protected areas are becoming islands in a sea of development.

So when the climate is changing rapidly, as it is now, then creatures have to get out of where they are and move, or perish where they are. And so the need for landscape connectivity, for landscape permeability, for creatures to be able to move from one place to another, becomes more important than it was in the past, when things weren’t changing very fast. Now that climate belts are shifting and generally moving north, it’s more important than ever that we have connectivity on the land.

Is this just about maintaining numbers or does it go beyond that for you?

It’s hard for scientists to talk about beauty, but what’s more important than beauty in our lives? We go to the great museums, and we travel to Europe to see wonderful sculpture and art.

Most of the beauty in the world is natural beauty. The beauty of butterflies, the beauty of birds, the beauty of fish and turtles, and even snakes. Anybody who has cats knows how amazing it is to watch a cat. They flow when they move, and that’s the way the natural world is. It’s uninhibited. It’s free and it’s beautiful.

Some people are threatened by beauty. Some people see wild nature as a place that’s uncontrolled, that needs to be developed, that we need to have domination over. That’s always been part of the American ideal, to clear away the elements in our environment that we thought were inferior, and leave it for people who could make the best or highest use of it, which means to destroy nature and replace it with something that could generate money. Unless we change some of these values, we’re not going to have a beautiful world.

  • Mossman K

    fantastic, eloquent, passionate, and spot on. Just what we expect from you Dr Soule! I hope you have many readers.