Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Earth to Enterprise: Help! (In which Laura boldly goes where no man has gone before)

Yellow-rumped Warbler

I have always been of the mindset that individuals matter. As a social animal with two arms and one lap, we humans are evolutionarily programmed to empathize and interact with and minister to individuals rather than whole large groups. When looking at pictures of crowds, our eyes are drawn to individual faces. Even as society becomes ever more technologically advanced and we are pulled further and further back from directly assisting people and animals in need, with hospitals, agencies, institutions, and organizations acting for all of us, we have never lost that impulse to focus on individuals. In order for many of us to contribute to a cause or help at a food bank or work to restore habitat, we need to feel viscerally connected to an individual. That need for specificity is fundamental human nature.

Some conservationists decry this impulse because to protect species and biodiversity, we really must focus on populations rather than individuals. But caring about individuals does not negate caring about the larger picture. On the contrary, some of the world’s finest conservationists were originally sparked by a magical face-to-face encounter with one individual animal. I’d argue that in order to be fully human—the best of all we can be—our hearts and our minds must both be fully engaged. 

Yet some conservationists and biologists ridicule wildlife rehab centers because of their focus on individual creatures, and a few, like Robert Zink of the University of Minnesota and Paul Kerlinger of Curry & Kerlinger, “Consultants to the Wind Power Industry,” even pooh-pooh efforts to stop construction of potentially massive bird killers like the proposed Vikings Stadium or the AT&T lighted, guyed tower on the edge of the Boundary Waters. Individual bird lives mean absolutely nothing to them—they both have claimed that even egregious deathtraps causing the deaths of hundreds or thousands of birds each year won’t affect populations. By rejecting, or perhaps not even sensing, the impulses of their own human hearts, these scientists may believe they’re espousing Spock-like wisdom, but their cold and unfeeling message makes the human beings hearing them turn away from both them and such a coldly scientific approach to other issues as well, adding fuel to the anti-science sentiments that are so polarizing our society. This is ironic, because their claims are not  even supported by science.

I’m not normally one who sees the world through the prism of the original Star Trek series, one of the rare TV shows with nary a bird in the soundtrack, much less mentioned in the dialog. Space may be the final frontier, but as Robert Frost almost said, “Earth’s the right place for birds: I don’t know where else they’re likely to live.” Even so, Star Trek can at least give us a model for how in wildlife and conservation issues, attention must be paid on both the Spock-like scientific front and the McCoy-like heart front. It’s Captain Kirk who embodies both.

The human heart is not supposed to take precedence over our brain—a world of all McCoys would be at least as dangerous as, and far more backwards than, one of all Spocks. For example, people who look at individual feral cats and can’t bear the thought of euthanizing a single one even as they realize they can’t find them all homes as indoor cats are the ones who started the fundamentally flawed Trap-Neuter-Release projects. Now that many of these programs have been in existence for several years, it’s increasingly obvious that they haven’t helped—the number of feral cats continues to climb even within these colonies, and because people provide supplemental food and veterinary care that extends individual feral cat lives far beyond what natural predators enjoy, these subsidized killers take out many times the number of prey animals in their territories than natural predators possibly could. The human heart focusing entirely on individuals willfully closes its eyes to all this collateral damage. Finding a truly wise solution to the feral cat situation, and all kinds of other important conservation issues, requires integrating mind and heart. The Spocks and McCoys among us have valuable input, but it’s the Captain Kirks among us who must synthesize it to find the wisest solution. Where we’ll find them, I just don’t know.

Feral cat

I lean toward the scientific Spock more than the emotional McCoy. The underpinnings of virtually all the advances that have made our lives as rich as they are today were based in the sciences. My husband is a scientist, much of my own training is in science, and I was actually awarded the Frances F. Roberts award at a joint meeting of the Cooper and Wilson Ornithological Societies for a scientific paper I presented back in 1991. I am not one to discount the importance of science in making decisions on all kinds of issues.

But science is a particular and painstaking process of finding answers based on making hypotheses and experimenting, and the more complex the questions, the more difficult and time consuming it can be to tease out clear answers. Meanwhile, it can be disturbingly easy to twist scientific data so that it appears to answer a question that it does not. As a society confronted with immediate problems, we often believe a scientist citing numbers to make a claim without considering what those numbers actually mean. And we often need to make decisions before all the data are gathered, much less synthesized into irrefutable scientific fact. If this were a Star Trek scenario, what’s a Kirk to do while Spock is still mulling, a Romulan is making false claims, and McCoy is yelling his head off?

The Honorable Philip D. Bush had to play the Kirk role in the Boundary Waters case. On every issue, he found on behalf of the plaintiffs—the Friends of the Boundary Waters—who were claiming that the proposed guyed, lighted tower on the very edge of the Boundary Waters Wilderness Area would harm the wilderness values. The Minnesota Environmental Rights Act defines these values carefully, and requires that if a proposed project does in fact cause any demonstrable harm to the state’s natural resources, and if a less harmful alternative can be found, regardless of cost, it should be chosen. 

Paul Kerlinger, presenting himself as the objective, scientific Spock, testified under oath that at most, 48 birds a year would be killed at the tower—where he pulled out that purely speculative, unscientific, and most unSpock-like number was anybody’s guess, but AT&T was clear that the Ph.D. after Kerlinger’s name gave him far more credibility than the Mrs. in front of mine did. Judge Bush wrote in his findings: “He is a private consultant and testifies exclusively for the wind and cell-tower industries. The Court does not find Kerlinger’s opinions about very low probable bird mortality at the Proposed Tower to be credible.”

AT&T could have built a single 199-foot tower on the same site rather than their 450-foot tower, which they did not argue would provide significantly more coverage. Alternatively, they could have built two 99-foot towers spread apart, which would definitely have provided significantly more coverage for little more cost. Judge Bush’s 58-page decision included 239 findings of fact and 69 conclusions of law in his summary finding for the Friends of the Boundary Waters. AT&T appealed, and the Appeals Court, in bizarrely non-analytical, rather Klingon-like fashion, from the gut rather than the heart or mind, threw out Bush’s carefully weighed findings, saying simply that the Boundary Waters was not “pristine wilderness” anyway, and that public safety was critical. The Minnesota Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

In the current Vikings stadium issue, Robert Zink, like Paul Kerlinger, agrees that the proposed windows will kill birds. He even agrees that the number may be large. His argument is that it doesn’t matter, because one building, even with 180,000 square feet of glass on a major migration flyway, won’t hurt bird populations any more than a litany of other things hurting birds. He said that people keeping their cats indoors would protect more birds, but that was hardly based on scientific analysis: individual cats kill fewer birds per year than many individual large glass structures do, and overall cats and collisions with glass cause bird mortality of the exact same order of magnitude. The real Spock would never make such unwarranted claims. Kerlinger and Zink both trust that judges and public opinion will be swayed not by scientific analysis of their statements but by their Ph.D's, even though neither has a background in population biology.

Both Kerlinger's and Zink’s main contention is fundamentally flawed, scientifically. They say that lighted, guyed towers or buildings with large amounts of glass don’t hurt populations, when what the data actually say is that we don’t yet know the precise effects of any individual human-caused bird mortality on populations, even as we can clearly see that some populations are declining precipitously. They carefully skirt the question most people think they’re answering: when a species such as the Golden-winged Warbler—one Zink himself calls a “super-collider” because it’s killed in collisions in numbers far above average—is already dangerously declining, how well can that species absorb additional mortality?

When there are so many unknowns, how do we make decisions in these cases, and who is to judge? And even if Captain Kirk were to show up, how would we deal with his overacting and insufferable arrogance? My favorite single line in any Star Trek movie or episode comes from the end of Star Trek IV, when the pretty whale biologist kisses off Kirk with a satisfyingly final “See ya ‘round the galaxy.” Nobody’s perfect—that is the nature of human beings, even Captain Kirk. And there are no perfect answers to the important conservation issues facing our world. But as human beings, we must use the tools we have to solve them. Brains and heart. Without either, we lose our way.