Amy Vedder studying mountain gorillas.
For me, wildlife perfectly embodies the wonder, whimsy, and charisma of wild places. To encounter a wild animal in a wild place pulls me quickly and deeply into the natural world — a world I notice because of the presence of another live creature in the midst. I’ve looked into the deep, brown, understanding eyes of a mountain gorilla, seen pronghorns spring through sagebrush, and been entertained by hooded merganser ducks and their precise courtship displays. Each time, I feel privileged to be a part of their same world.
To go a step further, wild places aren’t simply home to wildlife; they are wildlife, and vice versa. Whether as predators, pollinators, or seed-dispensers — to name just a few of the roles critters play — wild animals are crucial to healthy, functioning ecosystems. So in addition to the thrill of sighting a single animal, I celebrate the presence of whole populations of wildlife. It’s having the full complement of species, in sufficient numbers, playing out their roles, that holds the community of life together.
Right now, there are few incentives for public land managers to focus on and maintain ecologically healthy wild animal populations … to keep the lifeblood of wild places flowing. As a result, we often learn that a population or an entire ecosystem is in trouble after the damage is done because we haven’t been monitoring and protecting wildlife.
I’m writing because there is a new act being proposed that can change this. The America’s Wildlife Heritage Act (AWHA) will give federal land managers the tools and guidance they need to keep any and all wild species common for generations to come. The act does so in three ways.
- It creates permanent, clearly defined standards for maintaining healthy populations of all kinds of wildlife that managers will have to consider and meet during the land planning process. Because the wildlife heritage act is a legislative standard, animal and plant populations will be guaranteed their place in land plans, no matter how the political winds blow.
- AWHA isn’t just a regulation; it’s a 21st century land management tool. By using the best-available science and focusing resources on indicator species (species whose health can signify the health of the ecosystem at large), land managers under AWHA will be able to get an accurate picture of the area in an efficient manner, instead of spending their time surveying every species — or just endangered species — at a site.
- The third key element of AWHA also involves efficiency — in the form of expanding collaboration and information-sharing between agencies and across jurisdictional boundaries. Migratory birds and herds of mule deer don’t know when they’ve crossed lines on a map, so AWHA directs federal and state agencies to coordinate management plans and pool the wealth of data that each agency has at its disposal. Time will be saved, better information pooled, and more effective conservation achieved.
Aldo Leopold famously wrote, “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” And the quote is particularly apt as our land managers prepare for the hard work of climate change adaptation. For too long, we have been tinkering on public lands without keeping track of some of the most important pieces; AWHA puts the cogs and wheels of wildlife management back in place — and the wonder of life keeps ticking.
Amy Vedder is Executive VP of Conservation for The Wilderness Society. Amy’s work has gained international renown, particularly having launched highly successful conservation programs to save gorillas and tropical mountain rain forests, the subjects of several books including In the Kingdom of Gorillas which she has co-authored with Bill Weber.
photos: Amy Vedder studying mountain gorillas.