Survival Instinct

Conservation movements have won in the past. Can they do it again?

One cold January afternoon, as I was hiking my regular trail loop on Theodore Roosevelt Island, I noticed a bald eagle perched in a large oak tree, about 30 feet away. The island is one of Washington, D.C.’s forest parks, a dollop of wilderness in the middle of the Potomac River. I’d seen eagles flying over the river before, their white heads unmistakable, but to see one perched so close felt uncanny, as if I’d stumbled into the presence of a visitor from another world. 

Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction
by Michelle Nijhuis
W. W. Norton and Company, 351 pp.

As the sun dipped below the horizon, the eagle lifted its wings and flew off. Twice it circled back, gliding with its outermost wing feathers spread out like long fingers. 

The cold set in and my fingers and toes started to grow numb, so I hurried home along the path before the light was entirely gone. The moment would have stuck with me in any year, but this was just three days after Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol, plunging the city into angst and anger. The sight of the eagle felt like a bit of grace.

Such an encounter would have been far less likely in this park 30 years ago, and almost certainly wouldn’t have happened in the early 1960s. At that time, there were fewer than 500 nesting pairs across the lower 48 states. Many naturalists worried that America’s national bird was hurtling toward extinction, another casualty of habitat loss, hunting, and pollution—especially the indiscriminate use of DDT, an insecticide that persists in the food chain and causes eagles to lay eggs with paper-thin shells, too fragile to protect the developing embryos inside. 

Today there are more than 71,400 nesting pairs of bald eagles in the country, and their return to the mid-Atlantic region has been particularly spectacular. This winter I’ve seen bald eagles cruising over the nearby Anacostia and Susquehanna Rivers. In 2014, one pair established a nest within the National Arboretum, and wildlife biologists set up a remote camera to watch the eagles raise chicks. 

At a time when climate change threatens entire ecosystems and many elements of human societies, it’s worth remembering the times that people have managed to undo some of the havoc they’ve wreaked upon the planet. That’s one of the implicit messages of the journalist Michelle Nijhuis’s new book, Beloved Beasts. The book is an ambitious effort to chronicle the development of the global conservation and environmental movements over three centuries. “The past accomplishments of conservation were not inevitable, and neither are its predicted failures,” she writes. “Fantasy and despair are tempting, but history can help us resist them.”

At a time when climate change threatens entire ecosystems and many elements of human societies, it’s worth remembering the times that people have managed to undo some of the havoc they’ve wreaked upon the planet.

If there’s one overriding takeaway from Beloved Beasts, it’s that most conservation success stories aren’t the result of a single decisive act, but of many complementary policies working together. When I go hiking on Theodore Roosevelt Island and see bald eagles, I have at least four successive waves of conservation movements to thank—each with varied origins and coalitions behind them. 

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 stopped the rampant commercial hunting and sale of birds and feathers. The movement to set aside and restore wilderness areas as parks began in the late 19th century and was expanded by President Theodore Roosevelt in the early 20th. (In 1931, the Roosevelt Memorial Association purchased the little island in the Potomac to make it a park.) The Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940 and later the Endangered Species Act of 1973 safeguarded the eagle. Finally, DDT was banned in 1972. Within a decade, scientists estimated that the number of bald eagles in the lower 48 states had more than tripled, and it continued to rise.

By 2007, bald eagle numbers had rebounded enough that the bird was removed from the list of threatened and endangered species, although it is still federally protected. 

Beloved Beasts is organized through a series of profiles and interlocking vignettes about key leaders in what Nijhuis calls “the story of modern species conservation.” The subjects hail from different eras and varied political contexts, and include Carl Linnaeus, an 18th-century Swedish botanist who named thousands of species; William Temple Hornaday, the chief taxidermist at the predecessor to the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, who fought to save the American bison from extinction at the turn of the 20th century; Rosalie Barrow Edge, an American suffragist who advocated for wild bird protections in the early 20th century; Rachel Carson, the scientist who documented the detrimental effects of DDT on ecosystems in her 1962 book, Silent Spring; and many others. 

Notably, Beloved Beasts is not a book of nature writing—most glimpses of the natural world come through choice quotes from conservation leaders. As Nijhuis defines her mission, “This book is about the humans who have devoted their lives to these questions [of conservation]—the scientists, birdwatchers, hunters, self-taught philosophers, and others who have countered the power to destroy species with the whys and hows of providing sanctuary.” 

By and large, the people Nijhuis features come from fortunate backgrounds. “Most early conservationists were privileged North Americans and Europeans, and no wonder; location and education enabled them to recognize the effects of humans on other species, and money and status freed them to take controversial positions,” she writes. That means the heirs of the conservation movement today must reckon with questions about who was left out, or denigrated, or displaced by, early environmental campaigns. 

Nijhuis notes that environmentalism’s “early chapters are shadowed by racism, and some conservationists still hold blinkered views of their fellow humans, causing them to mislay blame for the damage they seek to contain.” After Yellowstone was named the U.S.’s first national park in 1872, the federal government forced the Native Americans who lived there to relocate outside park boundaries. 

Modern conservationists now strive to protect the rights of Indigenous groups, but there are still wounds to heal. In the spring 2021 issue of Audubon magazine, the Black ornithologist and birdwatcher J. Drew Lanham wrote an article titled “What Do We Do About John James Audubon?,” reflecting on the racism of the organization’s founder, and how it still hampers modern efforts to make birdwatching a more inclusive hobby. 

The contemporary conservation movement is more self-aware, but it is also operating in far more partisan times. Whether a politician aims to address climate change—or even accepts the underlying science—has become an ideological litmus test. Donald Trump called climate change science a hoax on the campaign trail, and then his administration rolled back more than 100 Obama-era environmental regulations and withdrew the United States from the Paris climate accord. Hours after Joe Biden was sworn in, he began the process of rejoining the agreement.

Support for environmental laws wasn’t always so divided along party lines. As Nijhuis writes, the Endangered Species Act of 1973 “attracted wide support, and few detractors. The National Rifle Association testified on its behalf, and some of the most conservative members of the House and Senate backed it with little hesitation.” The final vote in the House of Representatives was 355 to 4. 

Can we make that kind of progress on environmental policy again? Nijhuis isn’t making predictions. As she writes in the concluding chapter, “Like the human societies they work within, these movements must constantly weigh individual interests against the common good, and those decisions are only becoming more difficult.” But it’s also become clear that the fates of humans and the rest of the planet are intertwined—a quickly warming world threatens both coastal cities and coral reefs. It jeopardizes our agricultural systems as well as the survival of polar bears. Taking action now—by, say, choosing to protect rain forests as habitats for endangered species and as carbon stores for the planet—benefits many species, including our own.

 

Since this piece was published in print, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a report updating the total number of bald eagles in the lower 48 states. This piece has been changed to include that new number.

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Christina Larson

Christina Larson is a Washington Monthly contributing editor and an award-winning science and environment journalist who has reported from five continents.