Sunday read: Killing (much of) the island to save it

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Image from Mother Nature Network.
I love the opening paragraphs of Ryan Bradley’s story about restoring Santa Cruz Island:

The cows were the first to go because cows are big, and killing them was easy. …

The pigs were the trickiest. Or trickiest yet. They’d been on the island since the mid-19th century, brought over by the first ranchers, and had long gone feral. The Parks Service and Conservancy closed off most of the island to the public beginning in 2005, called in teams of New Zealand snipers and helicopter pilots and, within a year, had killed 5,000 of them. Over the next few months, some of the remaining pigs were captured and radio collared. Pigs are social, and extremely smart. The snipers tracked the collared, so-called Judas pigs back to their kind and, only if and when they could destroy a group all at once, opened fire. Any pig left alive, even wounded, would become all the more skittish and difficult to find. It would teach others to fear helicopters overhead.

Some of the last remaining island pigs had changed their habits entirely. One Judas seemed to have turned amphibian. When a helicopter team flew by the patch of coastline where the radio collar told them it should be, they found a cave high up on a cliff. A harnessed sniper descended into the cave and, when the pig charged out of the dankness, he put it down. Santa Cruz Island was declared pig-free by 2007. In 2012, it was declared turkey-free, too. The Nature Conservancy was tantalizingly close to its goal — to restore Santa Cruz Island to something approximating its prehistoric, virgin state.

Eventually, The Nature Conservancy got rid of the bees, too. Then there was only one invasive species left: Argentine ants.

Getting rid of Argentine ants would be hard, because Argentine ants may be the most common societal creature on earth outside of humans. And, just like humans, they mostly don’t give a fuck about the area they’re invading: They’re the “bare-knuckle brawlers of the insect kingdom,” in Bradley’s words. They may be native to central South America, but they’ve been found in Norway, Ireland, Hawaii, Bermuda and Japan — anywhere a ship can find port.

In the 1980s, The Nature Conservancy decided to restore Santa Cruz Island, one of the Channel Islands off Southern California, to its primeval state. The Conservancy owns about 75 percent of the island, which had once been a cattle and sheep ranch. The idea of returning the land to the way it was hundreds, or even thousands, of years ago is a fascinating one.

But, Bradley asks, what is the natural state of such lands?

It’s one thing for humans to take an orange grove and turn it into asphalt-laden subdivisions and big-box stores. It’s another for humans — or winds, or ocean currents — to simply move some non-native species to a new place. Is there such a thing as “untainted”? Haven’t storms, or volcanic eruptions, or driftwood changed ecosystems, too? (It should be noted that, based on the article, The Natire Conservancy takes these questions seriously, and is very careful about its actions.)

Bradley quotes from Wendell Berry’s “Conservation and Local Economy,” noting the distinction between good ways and bad ways of being invasive. The former maintains, or adds to, the ecosystem; the latter helps destroy it. I also thought of “The World Without Us,” Alan Weisman’s brilliant book about what a world without humans would look like. After all, Homo sapiens has been on Earth for less than a million of this planet’s 4.5 billion years; it’ll be here long after we’ve either annihilated ourselves or moved on to the rest of the galaxy.

Argentine ants, ironically, owe their invasions to us: In the mid-19th century, we invaded their habitat, and they tagged along on our transport. So they really shouldn’t be on Santa Cruz Island or most other places. But still, the question of who gets to decide what “natural” is leads down some intriguing paths. 

Bradley’s story, which appeared in The Verge, is today’s Sunday read. You can find it here.

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