In one corner of the United States, mountain
goats traipse across the fragile alpine flowers that speckle
the snowline of Washington's craggy Olympic Mountains.
They look beautiful, but the goats don't belong there.
Seattle newspaperman E.B. Webster and his mountaineer
club 80 years ago pushed to introduce the shaggy-bearded
animals to the majestic mountains to boost tourism.
So a dozen goats arrived, and the numbers quickly grew
to a high of 1,200.
Meanwhile, wolves are native to the same mountains
of Olympic National Park, but don't expect to hear their
nocturnal howls anytime soon. Neighbors objected when
rangers a few years ago proposed reintroducing the park's
missing predator. To some, it's simple: alien goats,
OK; native wolves, not OK.
In the opposite corner of the country, native animals
of the Florida Keys face a public relations problem
of their own. At the tony Ocean Reef Resort in Key Largo,
hundreds of feral cats are fed by residents at two dozen
designated feeding stations yet the cats are helping
kill off the endangered Florida Keys cotton mouse.
Farther down the island chain, the federal government
has forced builders to stop projects in the path of
the endangered Lower Keys marsh rabbit. But the feds
are virtually powerless when it comes to protecting
the rabbits from residents' free-ranging house cats,
dogs, and those ubiquitous suburban freeloaders, raccoons.
These animals are among the rabbits' other threats,
according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
And while the world's 800 remaining tiny endangered
Key deer certainly score as high as Bambi in public
appeal, people may love them too much. Illegal feedings
cause deer to lose their fear of people and look for
food in neighborhoods, where some deer are attacked
and killed by dogs. What is wrong with this picture?
Throughout the country, it's a similar story. Whether
we're aware of it or not, we subtly and sometimes
not so subtly change the natural world by our
choices of which animals we like and don't like.
Explorer Hernando DeSoto liked hogs and brought 13
with him to Florida in 1539; by 1993 more than 2 million
feral hogs were uprooting untold acres of plants in
23 states and preying on forest birds, yet delighting
game hunters, according to federal reports. Fans of
the hog in Louisiana have gone so far as to establish
the Wild Boar Conservation Association, which encourages
the establishment of boar breeding programs.
Collector Eugene Schieffelin is believed to have set
free a few dozen starlings in New York's Central Park
in March 1890 to introduce the nation to the birds he
read about in Shakespeare. Now, their descendents snack
at backyard bird feeders and aggressively evict flickers,
bluebirds, and other natives from their nests across
the nation. And house sparrows, introduced in 1853,
harass native robins and displace bluebirds, purple
martins, and cliff swallows from their nesting sites,
according to a 1999 Cornell University report.
Indeed, as the human population grows and people move
into new areas, they help transform the landscape by
bringing along backyard bird feeders and favorite companions:
cats, dogs, reptiles, and exotic fish (some of which
end up in canals and lakes when aquarium enthusiasts
tire of them). Meanwhile, creatures that benefit from
living around people follow them into disturbed areas,
including opossums, raccoons, pigeons, and dumpster-diving
White-tailed deer and coyotes spread into new areas
as they take advantage of the disappearance of animals
people don't like, such as wolves and grizzly bears.
Coyotes now live in every state except Hawaii, and they
even snack at outdoor pet-food bowls in cities such
as Denver, Los Angeles, Phoenix, and New York. Coyotes
can eat "doughnuts and sandwiches, pet cats and cat
food, pet dogs and dog food, carrion and just plain
garbage," according to a 2001 U.S. Department of Agriculture
(USDA) report. More coyotes now exist than before the
U.S. Constitution was signed, due to an amazingly adaptable
scavenger diet and the disappearance of competing wolves.
The nation's big predators are largely gone, noted
John Morrison, acting director of the World Wildlife
Fund's (WWF) conservation science program.
"We, Homo sapiens, have arrived and marked
our territory well," writes Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson
in his latest book, The Future of Life.
People have "reshaped the U.S. because somehow we
as a species wanted it that way," Kim Todd argues in
Tinkering with Eden: A Natural History of Exotics
in America. "We chose starlings and gypsy moths
and honeybees just as clearly as we chose the Grand
Coulee Dam and the Sears Tower."
Upset upon learning in 1995 that the ivorybill woodpecker
had gone extinct after being reduced to the few remaining
primeval swamps of Louisiana, Florida, and South Carolina,
Wilson laments what we are doing to the landscape. "Winners
of the Darwinian lottery ... we are chipping away the
ivorybills and other miracles around us. As habitats
shrink, species decline wholesale in range and abundance,"
Wilson notes. "Being distracted and self-absorbed, as
is our nature, we have not yet fully understood what
we are doing."
Biologists are noticing, however, and seven out of
ten say we are in the midst of a "mass extinction" of
living things, according to a 1998 survey of 400 biologists
commissioned by New York's American Museum of Natural
History. One in eight known bird species around the
world face a high risk of extinction in the near future,
according to the authoritative 2000 International Union
for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN)
Red List of Threatened Species. That means entire species
of birds face the same odds of disappearing from the
planet for good as a woman in the United States does
of developing breast cancer sometime in her lifetime.
Mammals have it worse: One in four known mammals worldwide
face a high risk of extinction in the near future. Not
since dinosaurs vanished 65 million years ago have so
many species disappeared so quickly. And this time,
it's mainly due to human activity and not natural phenomena
like a comet smashing into the planet, say the polled
biologists. They consider biodiversity loss a more serious
environmental problem than global warming, pollution,
or depletion of the ozone layer. In the world's 4.5
billion years, there have been five mass extinctions.
The sixth and fastest is under way, say
It may seem like no big deal to lose Florida's humble
Ponce de Leon beach mouse, which has vanished due to
"real estate development and perhaps predation by domestic
cats," as the IUCN Red List put it. But these very factors
habitat loss and introduction of exotic species
are among the main causes of our current global
extinction crisis, biologists say.
"Many wonderful creatures will be lost in the first
few decades of the 21st century unless we greatly increase
levels of support, involvement, and commitment to conservation,"
said Russell A. Mittermeier, president of Conservation
International, about the latest IUCN Red List. Though
most of those species live in more biologically diverse
regions near the equator, the fact remains that about
280 out of 808 known extinctions have occurred in the
United States, WWF's Morrison said.
And 42 percent of the nation's threatened or endangered
species both animals and plants face trouble
primarily because of competition with and being killed
by nonnative species, according to a 1999 Cornell University
report. The report's lead author, David Pimentel, said
he has found no reason for optimism since 1999. "More
foreign species arrive each year," said Pimentel, professor
of insect ecology and agricultural sciences. "I do not
believe that we are winning the war on exotic species
because of increased trade, increased number of people
traveling, and the growing human population in the U.S.
WHAT WAS LOST
To get a sense of what is being lost, let's look at
the continent that explorers Meriweather Lewis and William
Clark saw when they took their arduous journey up the
Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean, starting in 1804.
Fewer people lived in the entire nation in 1804 than
currently live in New York City alone. "It's a marvelous
example to show how things have changed," said Chris
Dionigi, assistant director for Domestic Policy, Science,
and Cooperation for the National Invasive Species Council.
And it's also a dramatic illustration of humankind's
ability to remake the landscape, usually to its detriment.
The explorers saw their first American bison, also
known as buffalo, in June 1804 at the mouth of the Kansas
River, near today's Missouri/Kansas state border. Clark
couldn't believe the number of buffalo he saw feeding
on the plain near the mouth of the White River in current-day
South Dakota. "I must have Seen near 20,000 of those
animals feeding on this plain," he reported during a
stop on the trip home in 1806, according to The Natural
History of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, edited
by Raymond Darwin Burroughs.
Bison were so plentiful above the Milk River in current-day
Montana that "the men frequently throw sticks and stones
at them to drive them out of their way." The men were
wowed by what they saw near the mouth of the Yellowstone
River. "The whole country was covered with herds of
buffaloe, Elk & Antelopes," the explorers reported,
according to The Way to the Western Sea by David
Lavender. "The bald Eagle are more abundant here than
I ever observed them in any part of the country," Lewis
wrote in April 1805.
Grizzly bears occasionally scared the wits out of
the explorers in current-day Montana and the Dakotas,
and Lewis hotfooted for safety as a badly wounded grizzly
pursued him for 70 yards near the mouth of the Yellowstone
River. Clark was impressed when a team member later
shot what he thought must be "the largest Bird of North
America." It proved to be a California condor (today,
among the world's rarest birds). Throughout their trek,
the men saw lots of otter, raccoon, and birds such as
trumpeter swans (today, the world's rarest swan). They
became the first naturalists to describe several animals,
including the coyote, kit fox, Oregon bobcat, and the
wolf of the plains, according to Burroughs.
What Lewis and Clark found on their historic trek
has filled entire volumes, but at least two things are
clear. The West obviously has changed since 1804, as
cities sprang up, railroads ferried hunters within easy
shooting distance of trophy buffalo, and grizzlies and
wolves were pushed into smaller and smaller areas. Secondly,
and more surprisingly: Even in 1804, the explorers saw
signs that humans already had tinkered with the natural
The horses that galloped past them descended from
horses brought over by Spanish conquistadors. North
America's native horse went extinct 10,000 years ago.
Dogs, meanwhile, weren't just companions for Native
Americans; they were food. Hungry and fatigued, the
explorers resorted to buying Native American dogs. "Clark,
at least, could not overcome a sense of revulsion at
being obliged to eat them," Burroughs wrote.
By the 1940s, red and gray wolves once found
throughout most of North America vanished from
most of the lower 48 states. Grizzlies which once
roamed the western half of North America today
number around 1,100 in the contiguous United States.
They're gone from the Bitterroot Mountains, where Lewis
and Clark found healthy populations, but they remain
in mountains in Wyoming, Washington, Montana, and Idaho,
according to the National Wildlife Federation. The U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service was poised to return grizzlies
to the Selway-Bitteroot region of central Idaho and
northwestern Montana, to the delight of conservationists
who pushed for the plan. But Interior Secretary Gale
Norton overturned that decision last year.
Fast-forward to today, and more than 50,000 species
of exotic animals and plants now live in the United
States, Pimentel reports, including about 20 introduced
mammals such as dogs and cats (populations 66 million
and 73 million, respectively). Clearly, we can't recreate
the North America that Lewis and Clark found. We've
not only introduced new animals and plants, we've also
inalterably paved and built on vast expanses of former
wilderness. The nation's human population now approaches
280 million overwhelming numbers when compared
to the roughly 6 million who lived here during Lewis
and Clark's trip.
Still, we're going to have to decide together how
to manage these changes and ask ourselves the following
questions: Are we trying to return the natural order,
and especially our wildlife, to as close to pre-Pilgrim
days as possible? Are we trying to bring back the "good
species" and repress the "bad species"? Do we have a
moral obligation to preserve as many native animals
as possible? If so, what changes could that mean to
our daily habits and are we ready to try them?
Flushable cat litter, for instance, may be killing
California sea otters, according to a February 2001
report in The Scientist. As the waste goes down
the toilet and eventually ends up in the ocean, so can
go Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite whose only known
hosts are felines, including housecats, bobcats, cougars,
and stray cats.
Another parasite under suspicion for otter deaths
is Sarcocystis neurona, whose only definitive
host is the opossum. Close to 40 percent of otter deaths
are blamed on diseases such as these. Only about 2,000
otters remain. "It's a serious issue," said marine biologist
Jim Curland, a marine program associate for Defenders
of Wildlife. "It says what we're doing on land can have
some serious repercussions for animals in the ocean."
Around the country, there are other skirmishes that
pit native creatures against what may be your favorite
animals. In Hawaii, cats and dogs as well as the imported
mongoose have seriously affected nesting waterbirds
and two seabirds: the dark-rumped petrel and Newell's
shearwater, according to the National Biological Service.
Several new projects aim to curb predators, and more
baby petrels have survived since a program began in
the nesting areas at Haleakala National Park on Maui.
Elsewhere, dogs accompanied by their owners happily
ran leash-free legally along a vast expanse of beach
at San Francisco's Fort Funston park that is,
until officials determined that one of California's
two bank swallow coastal communities used 10 acres of
the beach. The Golden Gate National Recreation Area
closed the 10 acres to dogs to protect the swallow.
That prompted a lawsuit from a dog-loving group called
Fort Funston Dog Walkers, according to the Marin Audubon
Free-roaming cats, thought to live in a newly constructed
nearby subdivision in California's Marin County, are
showing up at Cemetery Marsh, a 50-acre spot used as
a nesting area and overwintering site by belted kingfishers
and snowy egrets, according to the Marin Audubon Society,
which is encouraging residents to keep cats indoors.
Feral cats, meanwhile, are pitted against California
quail at Bidwell Park in Chico, Calif., and against
rare ground-nesting birds such as California black rail
and Western snowy plover at California's East Bay Regional
Animal rights activists object to euthanizing stray
and feral cats at either place. In what is viewed as
a success story, Chico residents started the Chico Cat
Coalition, removed at least 440 cats, found homes for
most, and sent about 50 cats unsuitable for adoption
to live out their days in an enclosed barn on private
property. California quail are once again seen at the
park, and it's unusual to see a stray cat, according
to the American Bird Conservancy (ABC). Since 1997,
ABC has run a national campaign called Cats Indoors!.
Exactly how many animals are killed by cats is hotly
contested. Based on cat studies in Wisconsin and Virginia,
Pimentel extrapolated that each free-roaming cat nationally
kills five birds per year. So, his report estimates
that about 465 million birds are killed nationally each
Nonsense, counters groups such as Alley Cat Allies,
a national feral-cat organization that maintains habitat
destruction not cats is a far bigger problem.
More than 60 studies on feral cats from various continents
make three points, according to Alley Cats Allies: Cats
are opportunistic and eat what is most easily available.
Cats can prey on animals without destroying them. And
"cats are rodent specialists. Birds make up a small
percentage of their diet when they rely solely on hunting
"It gets really sensitive when you start talking about
cats and dogs and things like that," said the Invasive
Species Council's Dionigi. "But you know, feral cats
and dogs can cause quite a problem."
If Bruce Coblentz had his way, feral cats would be
killed, period. "If it didn't have a tag and it didn't
have a home, I'd kill it in a heartbeat. It'd be no
different than stepping on a cockroach. It's not to
say I'm a cat hater," said Coblentz, a cat owner and
professor of wildlife ecology at Oregon State University.
Cats are sort of a "third rail" topic among cat lovers,
said WWF's Morrison. Some animal rights groups favor
feral cat colonies that is, designated outdoor
areas where feral cats are returned after neutering,
spaying, and vaccinations so they can live out their
days outside. That is seen as the humane approach for
But Morrison and Coblentz say it isn't humane for
the native animals killed by feral cats. "You would
think people would be advocating for the safety and
well-being of native species," Morrison said.
In the end, we're left with troubling questions about
how to try to reverse the world's fastest extinction
rate of animals and plants since dinosaurs roamed the
Earth. Is it more humane to kill every last feral hog
or round up every feral cat in order to help natives?
Or is it more humane to let them live at the expense
of natives, such as the Key Largo cotton mouse? The
danger is that instead of pondering difficult questions
and coming up with our own personal solutions, we may
opt to play a game of cat and mouse with the truth.
Sally Deneen is a Seattle-based freelance writer.