Guest editorial: Allowing nature to takes its course

From the Idaho Press-Tribune

Idaho’s adventures killing ravens, battling wolves and fighting fires provides food for thought on how much we should let nature take its course

It’s true that man is part of nature, so it would be inappropriate to use the word “nature” without including mankind in the mix.

But maybe mankind could fit better in the formula if he took a more laissez–faire, hands-off approach to what happens outdoors. For all the meddling we do, for all the laws we’ve passed, for all the money we’ve spent, are we really making any progress?

Let’s start with a plan by Idaho wildlife biologists to kill 4,000 ravens in three parts of the state by feeding them poisoned chicken eggs — at a cost of $100,000. That plan hit the skids recently due to federal environmental permitting delays.

Why do we need to go around killing ravens? Well, it’s because they harm sage grouse populations by eating sage grouse eggs. These chicken-sized birds have seen population declines in the western United States, and the feds are deciding whether to protect them, which could include restrictions on oil and gas development, agriculture and other economic activity.

So sage grouse are good birds and ravens are bad birds, got it? We have to step in and kill the bad birds so they can’t hurt the good birds.

In a word: why? Why does mankind feel so obligated to step in and stop nature from taking its course?

So what if the sage grouse eventually die off? Species die off all the time. New ones develop. It’s called “nature,” and in a planet that’s over four billion years old, it’s a natural part of evolution. Why do so many people expect that process of constant change to stop — and expect everything in the world should stop evolving and remain the way it is right now?

Look at all the hullabaloo over wolves in Idaho. Does it take a professional comedian to see the irony of humans reintroducing wolves to the Gem State in the mid-1990s because they were “endangered,” and now we’re spending $400,000-plus on a “Wolf Depredation Control Board” to kill some of them to get the population back down after it soared unexpectedly?

Think of all the money spent and hours wasted by government agencies, environmental groups and hunting groups fighting lawsuits and sending dueling legislation back and forth, and where has it gotten us? Environmentalists are angry at what they perceive as open season on cute, furry, fuzzy wolves. Ranchers are angry their livestock are being “decimated” by the predators. Round and round the wheel spins.

And of course, we in the West know all about forest fires. The United States Forest Service spent over $1 billion in 2013 alone fighting forest fires, eclipsing its entire budget for that purpose. Money for timber, recreation and other services the U.S. Forest Service provides had to be raided to continue fighting the blazes.

Forest fires are also a natural phenomenon. They clear out overgrowth and allow new, fresh growth to replace it naturally. Yet we spend all that money and risk all those lives fighting them.

So does that mean we should alet nearby homes threatened by fires burn? Does it mean we should allow hunters to hunt species to extinction? Does it mean we should allow humans to pollute and litter to their hearts’ content?

Of course not. There’s a balance to be struck, and there are times human intervention is necessary. Anything we can do, for example, to combat the unexpected and disturbing decline in the bee population should be done. They are a vital part of the food chain, spreading pollen from plant to plant, and food is pretty important to mankind.

But perhaps before we decided to bring wolves back into Idaho, perhaps before we determined that the sage grouse was worth killing other birds for, perhaps before we decide to send brave fire fighters into a perilous situation to fight a remote blaze that isn’t threatening anyone, maybe we should pause for a moment and ask, “Is this really worth it? And what are the ramifications and potential unintended consequences? Are we going to create more problems than we solve?”

Those aren’t easy questions to ask. You’ll get radically different answers from people with opposing interests. People with preconceived notions and vested interests won’t be easy to talk to. They never are.

That doesn’t change the fact that this would be a good time for mankind to take a deep breath, take a few steps back and start allowing nature to take its course at least a little bit more than we are now. Mankind will always play a part in nature, but perhaps it’s time for that part to be a supporting actor, not a main character.