Monday, June 17, 2013

After the Devastation: Is There Hope For Large Wildlife Conservation Following Mountaintop Removal?

Photo by biotour13 via Flicker and a Creative Commons License

    What if the future of biodiversity conservation isn't in National Parks and protected areas, but in abandoned places? The played-out farm fields or remains after mountaintop removal for a seam of coal. Those overused and now typically overlooked parcels of land that saw a brief boom in human utility, and are now largely forgotten by both conservationists and the rest of the modern world.

    Make no mistake; after such drastic alterations to the land, these places are scenes of ecological devastation denuded of nutrients, flora and fauna. In some places whole mountains are moved and watersheds are lost. To bring it back to its normal condition (while sometimes mandated by law) is unrealistic. We will never get back the complex web of life that existed there. For example, following the slicing off of a mountaintop to fill an adjoining valley, we will need to give up hope for sensitive stream salamanders. In contrast to Aldo Leopold's vision, at these sites it is impossible to keep "all the pieces" after such blunt and single-minded tinkering. 

    As I drove down to start our research project in the coal fields of Buchanan County in southwestern Virginia I was prepared for sadness. Everything I had read suggested that the area had the two telltale signs of ecological disaster that are seen again and again in the most threatened biomes from the Amazon to the tundra - the recurring pairing of powerful international energy conglomerates with economic depression in the local community. Indeed, Buchanan is one of the poorest counties in the state, a full 7-hour drive from the counties to the northeast near the nation's capital that comprise some of the highest per-capita income counties in the US. And this is happening even when coal, oil and gas companies are still active, bringing jobs to the area. When the coal fields and gas wells play out, as they inevitably will someday, what is left? In a single word: Elk. 

    Today usually thought of as a species of the western US, elk once occurred across most of the continental US - from the redwood coastal forests of California, across the central Great Plains, and into deciduous forests of the eastern seaboard. Yet by the early 1900's, they were largely extirpated over most of the eastern US. Sporadic attempts to restore the species have occurred over the past several decades in Great Smoky Mountain National Park in Tennessee, as well as in pockets of habitat in Kentucky and Pennsylvania where local landowners are open to restoring one of eastern North America's largest and most charismatic mammals.

    Increasingly, despite the growing human footprint, lands are becoming available for elk restoration. Throughout the southern Appalachian Mountains, relatively large tracks of open land that used to be mining sites are being restored and released from federal bond requirements, providing novel re-engineered ecosystems that are available for the right group of visionary and like-minded individuals. One such group is the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, whose Virginia "coal fields chapter" has spearheaded local support to bring back elk. At the same time, forward-thinking politicians have heard of the money from elk viewing and hunting that came into local communities in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Kentucky following restoration attempts - vital resources for a land and economy in transition, and it turns out, fertile ground for conservation action. 

Elk release site and conditioning pen where they are monitored as they
 acclimatize to their new surroundings prior to release in Virginia
    For a biologist, the start of any wildlife research project in a new system begins with a flush of excitement as you shake hands with new partners and get away from the computer to sketch up research plans on the tailgate of a pickup truck. Yet coming from Montana, as I looked around from my vantage point atop a reclaimed strip mine near the town of Grundy with its matrix of roads and planted non-native trees and grasses, I could still not get past my preconceived notion that this place didn’t look like any elk habitat I knew. Worse, it contradicted all I had been taught about conserving sustainable, harvestable populations of large wild animals. Large species are typically thought of as among the most difficult to restore, having comparatively larger home ranges and thus requiring larger protected areas. Yet experiences in restoring elk to abandoned coal fields in Kentucky show that elk reintroduced into the central Appalachians do well, growing at rates that rival the more famous, robust populations of the western United States.

    We waited at the peak of a now flat topped mountain until sun set and the elk moved out of the forest on the steep valley edges and onto the plateau. As they came into view, I saw that each elk was marked with a color-coded and 
numbered tag in each ear and loaded with a bright orange, two-thousand-dollar GPS tracking collar around its neck. Precautionary monitoring devices placed on the animals by Virginia state wildlife officials to make sure the elk stayed put. I found myself asking circular questions, like: Do these intensively tracked and managed elk now released into a man-made ecosystem more closely resembled livestock than wildlife? What is the threshold for “wild” in wildlife? Yet as the elk began to come closer and graze warily on the early spring growth, I was entranced by their movements and tense with fear of spooking them, a feeling normally reserved for the rare wolf encounter in Yellowstone or a pileated woodpecker on the bird feeder in the back yard. It was a reminder of that critical, conscientious mental divide most humans have while being around wildlife as opposed to domesticated animals. 

    After dusk, when our eyes could no longer make out the silhouettes of elk in the spotting scope, we headed down the mountain. As we crept down the old gravel switchback coal road back to the blacktop, rather than leaving this scene of former devastation with a feeling of loss and pessimism, I was filled with a feeling of hope and optimism. If we have learned anything over the past 30 years since the advent of the field of conservation biology, it is that to bring back large mammal species we need to focus less on the postage stamp parks, and more on larger-scale ecosystem conservation and restoration. Further, over the long term in such a dynamic and changing ecological world, species conservation undoubtedly will be a shell game of finding areas to conserve and restore species while they are going extinct elsewhere. The elk restoration efforts in southwestern Virginia tell us that there is much to be gained from not only trying to stay one step ahead of human encroachment by attempting to lock up protected areas, but also by following in the footsteps of mankind to pick up the pieces.

Further Reading:

Wood, P., & Williams, J. (2013). Impact of Valley Fills on Streamside Salamanders in Southern West Virginia Journal of Herpetology, 47 (1), 119-125 DOI: 10.1670/11-187

Larkin, J., Maehr, D., Cox, J., Bolin, D., & Wichrowski, M. (2003). Demographic Characteristics of a Reintroduced Elk Population in Kentucky The Journal of Wildlife Management, 67 (3) DOI: 10.2307/3802704

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