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Can Conservation Be Too Successful?

How to deal with the return of America's big native fauna.
Gray seal pup. (Photo: Smithsonian's National Zoo/Flickr)

Gray seal pup. (Photo: Smithsonian's National Zoo/Flickr)

Before the 1800s, colonies of gray seals lolled on North American beaches stretching from subarctic Labrador to North Carolina. Then, in the 1800s and 1900s, people began hunting gray seals intensively for meat, fur, and bounty. Fearing that the marine mammals were eating too many of the fish that humans wanted to catch, local governments paid hunters for noses and flippers—proof that you'd killed a seal. By the 1980s, gray seals were a rare sight on many North American beaches.

Yet even then, the gray seal population was recovering. In 1972, the enactment of the United States' Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibited people from capturing and killing sea mammals in U.S. waters. East Coast gray seal populations grew exponentially in response; now, more than 15,700 gray seals live in Cape Cod—prompting fresh calls for population culling tactics, for reasons old and new. Some think gray seals deplete fish stocks, while others worry they're dirty and attract sharks looking for a seal dinner.

Officials can ask locals to help them count returning animals, which gives folks a sense of personal stake in the animals.

Cape Cod's gray seals are a strange success story in American conservation, but it's not the only one like it. While the Earth is still losing species overall, some past conservation measures have succeeded. There are now five times as many grizzly bears in and around Yellowstone National Park as there were 40 years ago. On the Pacific coast, there may be 10,000 times more elephant seals, which were hunted down to fewer than 20 individuals in the 1880s. Although it was human efforts that brought these animals back from near-extinction, humans don't always get along with their returning wild neighbors. That's why a team of U.S. ecologists recently recently published a paper with recommendations for smoothing the transition.

One recommendation: Officials ask locals to help them count returning animals, which gives folks a sense of personal stake in the animals. The state of Nebraska levied this successfully, by asking people to report when they see whooping cranes, the paper notes.

Scientists will also need to model animals' rebounds, so officials can prepare. If officials know bears will return to a region, for example, they can pass laws requiring campers to carry bear spray, and station more rangers to help with unwanted bear-human encounters.

Lastly, the ecologists recommended that scientists simply teach people about the historical populations of recovering endangered species. People need to "lift their baselines," as it's called in ecology jargon. In the May/June issue of Pacific Standard, we wrote about shifting baseline syndrome, or "our propensity to construct a sense of what's 'normal' from a relatively recent set of reference points, and hence to miss longer—and often more worrisome—trends." The story talked about how shifting baseline syndrome can make measly increases in an endangered animal's numbers seem like big successes. But shifting baseline syndrome can work the other way, too. It's shifting baselines that have made populations like Cape Cod's seals—which may be pretty normal, historically speaking—seem monstrous.

Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.