Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Migration Frustration: Wyoming's Pronghorn Problem

I recently received the January issue of Smithsonian and was struck by “End of the Road?” (Daniel Glick, 52-8, available on-line) on the pronghorn that live in the western United States. Not actually an antelope but a type of goat, the pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) are threatened primarily by mining interests that have received special exemptions from environmental regulations aimed at species protection. The basic story of the pronghorn is not anything new: species decline as a result of development. After some general information about the pronghorn as a species (less than one page), the rest of the article is a story of human action, conservationists battling corporation for the right to create the National Migration Corridor, a protected strip of land 90 miles long and one mile wide for the pronghorn to travel.

What is interesting about this all-too-common story of habitat encroachment is that the pronghorn doesn’t seem to be a central player in the article. I am not saying that Glick should have interviewed a pronghorn. (I hear they’re somewhat reticent.) However, the people involved have diverging interests as to why anyone should try and curb development in the region. One, for example, has concerns about the fracing process (a pressurized liquid drilling procedure, pronounced “fracking”) as a contributor to groundwater contamination, a specifically human concern. As a matter of presentation, four of the seven illustrations that accompany the article are of humans interviewed for the story. At issues, then, is that Glick presents an interesting picture of conservation writing today.

First, however, I would point out that I don’t see anything particularly wrong with doing things here on human terms. Any place where humans have made some kind of change to an area requires at least some consideration of how humans should act if only because we have foisted our structure into a place that did just fine without it. The pronghorns’ fear of crossing Highway 191 is a fine example. Do we keep the road? Construct wildlife crossings? Send out Fish and Wildlife people every year? Just not worry about it? Humans have to take part in the discussion because they have the means to do something about it—though it could also be because we’re the ones who created the problems in the first place.

I wouldn’t fault Glick for his (almost) writing the pronghorn out of the article because his venue dictates his subject to an extent; Smithsonian is not Conservation Biology. At the same time, it does pose a problem for the more popular press. The article is obviously pro-pronghorn. However, it might be pro-conservation at the cost of abstracting the species into “just another problem to be solved”. What is the place of framing in a science-based piece? might be one question. But perhaps a more important, attendant issue is that the focus of the article is on the feat of conservation itself and not the animal. Saving the pronghorn is not just a problem, but a problem of considerable scale—and in solving big problems, we get big pats on the back. Bernie Holz, quoted in the article, sees it this way: “This is the longest migration of a land species outside the Arctic in the New World…If we can’t save this pronghorn migration—an event that has been occurring for 6,000 years through a narrow thread of corridor—then what hope do we have for conserving other migrations?” Though the logic here seems backwards—why would it be easier to save the biggest and not smaller, more easily contained migrations?—there is at center a problem of ingenuity. Humans ought to be able to do something about this. And yet, if it weren’t for the humans, there wouldn’t be a problem to begin with. The pronghorn is central to the human story simply because it is a species that has behind it some superlative value, and it is this value that makes it a problem worth considering.

The use of superlatives is pervasive in the article, almost to the point of distraction. In the five pages (minus the space for pictures), we hear about the pronghorns’ “barest” diet, twice that they have the “longest” migration route in the lower 48 states, that the proposed corridor is “the most important” use of Wyoming land, and that the area of concern has “the most impressive views.” The fact that they are “arguably the world’s fastest living land animals” (in terms of stamina, sustaining 50+ mph instead of sprinting like the cheetah) is foregrounded in the pull-quote on the table of contents and the first factoid we get in the article itself. In a number of places the superlative is implied: Holz says “there’s a limit to what the animals can take” in terms of human-wrought abuses; that the pronghorns’ terrain is a place of “just enough”; that mining operations are allegedly “minimizing” drilling’s impacts. In each case the language of the article pushes the reader, whether explicitly employing the superlative or suggesting extremes in terms of limit.

The dictional choice—the pushing—in the article produces a strange double-effect. On the one hand, because of the overt interest in preserving species in the article, the superlative invokes a somewhat muted kind of crisis language. Nowhere does Glick, a capable journalist, fall into a screaming polemic on saving the pronghorn. Of course, he doesn’t have to. His clever move is to create the unfinished syllogism. He presents the following premises:

1. The pronghorn and its habitat are noteworthy
2. The pronghorn and its habitat are in danger.

The superlative description is premise one, the interviews with conservationists he contacts premise two. Left to the reader is the implied conclusion:

3. The pronghorn and its habitat should be protected.

Glick’s argument is a subtly affective (as well as fairly effective) one, leaving the logic to the emotional assumptions he believes his reader holds. Presumably the reader will think we should save interesting things, more so if they are threatened. However, these assumptions show the second half of the double-effect: a perpetuation of the charismatic species problem (on which David Suzuki has written an interesting short essay). By framing the pronghorn as remarkable (i.e. in terms of its speed and length of migration), Glick gives it some kind of value that is interesting to humans. It seems unlikely that the general public would have much of an idea as to what a pronghorn is, much less that it is a world-record holder before reading this article. As an activist piece, then, Glick promotes conservation, giving the pronghorn’s plight a sense of urgency, a word he employs twice on the final page in quotes from others. Glick’s conservationist urge is implicit; where humans like to solve interesting and urgent problems, he provides one.

I understand it isn’t terribly fashionable to talk about the preservation of a species simply for its own good. For policy changes to occur in this world (at least most of the time) conservation issues have to coupled with something for humans to gain. All the same, something has to be said for intrinsic value. Though I am sure that there are more species that would benefit systemically from the pronghorns’ protection (or the services that are used for protection, like wildlife crossings), Glick only once briefly alludes to some vague “benefit the mule deer, moose, and other mammals” would stand to gain. What is more—and I fully understand that I am being idealistic so no one needs to point it out—even if there weren’t systemic benefits (like predator-prey relationships, etc.) in protecting the pronghorn, there is some kind of value solely in its existence. At the very least, this is the type of value people address (if implicitly) when they mourn the extinction of a species, the subtext of the article. That something no longer exists is immediately upsetting about extinction, not that it was part of a larger ecosystem. Though one might also mourn the loss of connectivity as well, I think it is unlikely that the shock kids feel about the popular example of the dodo in elementary school science has much to do with biotic webs, but with finality. Glick’s point, however, might be that the mourning of species loss is generally retrospective except to those who fight the good fight. As such, he attempts to make the reader care about the pronghorn by making it remarkable, a tactic that simultaneously foregrounds the pronghorn as in trouble, but making it—for better or worse—a human problem.


xunis said...

i love dodos...

BTW, nice blog

Xunis's Word

Planet Killer said...

Obviously, as you know, I've been doing a lot of thinking about Everest lately and when I was reading your post I kept thinking about George Mallory's famous "Because it's there" quote about why he wanted to climb the mountain. There's a disconnect (and always will be) between people who want to do something and those who don't understand why someone would want to do it.

Mallory can say "Because it's there," but there is no conservation equivalent that resonates with the same effect. Why save the pronghorn? "Because they're there." Because not saving something that could be saved is kinda a dick thing to do. That logic doesn't move the needle, though.

What you point out about Glick's piece (which I have yet to read) is that the existence of proghorns isn't enough, in and of itself, to move enough people to rally behind the animal.

So the animal has to be marketed and sold. The animal can't escape capitalism - either it gets its habitat and migration screwed by a corporation, or it gets turned into a commodity to fight against the corporations.

Tommbert said...

Exactly right. And that's what's so frustrating about the whole situation is that until something becomes extinct, I would argue that it has no (functional) intrinsic value. Philosophically, we can say it has a kind of worth-in-existence, but somehow after it is gone, a good many more people than before are aware of the species in a new way. It's the difference between the news story that talks about how biologists are trying to save a certain species versus one that announces extinction (both, admittedly tacked on to the broadcast as filler at the end).

The interesting part about Glick's piece is his selling a lesser known species. The pronghorn, popularly, falls somewhere in between, say, the panda and the snail darter in terms of charisma. Glick's giving the pronghorn a little publicity I think is a good thing in a utilitarian sense. The part that worries me, however, is that it does nothing to change an attitude that I see as central to valuable conservation issues. We need more attachment to the Mallory impetus in conservation and less marketing.

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