Last week my family and I stood in the warm white sand of a central Florida conservation area and tried to etch in memory the sight of a pair of stout-billed, blue and gray colored Florida Scrub-Jays. The two birds eyed us nervously from the top of a bush in a small overgrown patch of scrubâ€”a habitat condition that was almost certain to mean that the few remaining birds we were watching were doomed. It was a melancholy feeling to see one of North America’s rarest and most endangered bird species in one of the small, isolated populations that are being snuffed out of existence at an increasing rate across the already limited Florida range.
The previous day we had walked through Homossa Springs State Park on Florida’s Gulf Coast west of Ocala. Like many of Florida’s “springs” this is an area where warm freshwater rises up out of the underlying limestone to form large, still pools where massive, gentle manatees spend the winter, many healing from long propeller cuts across their backs. One section of the park at Homossa Springs holds a small zoo of creatures that occur naturally in Florida (a hippopotamus was one notable exception). As we walked though the zoo, Evan, with his five-year-old energy and enthusiasm, was interested in the owls until a Great Horned Owl gave him an intimidating stare. He cheered on the herons, egrets, and Wood Storks brawling over a fish that had been offered by a zoo staff, and found that trumpeting Sandhill Cranes from ten-feet away were a little too loud for his tender ears.
And then suddenly I found myself face-to-face with the rarest and most endangered Boreal bird species in the worldâ€”a strikingly elegant five foot tall pure white Whooping Crane. To be honest I was shocked. Here in this tiny wildlife park was the descendant of one of the last 15 or 16 Whooping Cranes that had existed in 1941 where they were counted on their sole wintering area on the Texas coast near Corpus Christi. Those last birds kept their breeding grounds a secret until 1954 when they were finally tracked down to a section of Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Parkâ€”an 11 million acre park that straddles the border between Alberta and the Northwest Territories. The remoteness and protection of their Boreal breeding range was the one thing that gave those last remaining Whooping Cranes the chance to pull back from the dark edge of extinction. Now there are over 250 birds in the original wild population, an additional 100+ in two experimental populations, and over 150 in captivityâ€”most in secure facilities where they are not allowed to be seen by the public. And just by chance, here I was looking down into the face of one of the handful of Whooping Cranes that is allowed to be viewed by the public.
Credit Allison Wells
Just the week before I had been in Texas at what may have the world’s largest meeting devoted solely to bird conservation. The meeting of 700 bird conservation professionals from across the hemisphere took place in McAllen, just a couple of hours from where the all the wild ancestors of that Whooping Crane were spending the winter. Matt Medler and I had organized a symposium at the meeting on Boreal bird conservation including discussion of what we like to describe as the world’s largest bird conservation proposalâ€”the call for protection of 650 million acres of the Canadian Boreal as outlined in the Boreal Forest Conservation Framework.
Here assembled for four-days were people from government agencies, non-profits, universities, and a few from industry from locations across the U.S., Canada, Mexico the Caribbean, and Central and South America. These were passionate people who were devoting their lives to finding ways to save rare birds from extinction and maintain other birds at population levels that would prevent them from becoming rare and ensure that they remain a part of the lives and livelihoods of communities across the hemisphere. These were people who have crafted clever, creative projects, found ways to bring funding and human resources to needed problems, raised awareness in government and developed policies and conservation plans to try to stem the declines of birds and ecosystems.
The great irony was that unbeknownst to most of these 700 dedicated bird conservationists, another meeting was taking place in Texas that would have vastly more influence in deciding the fate of bird populations and the environment. None of these people were even faintly aware of the existence of the world’s largest bird conservation meeting or, for that matter that they themselves were deciding of the future’s of hundreds of millions of birds.
This was a meeting in Houston of leaders of the oil and gas industry. In one building in one city, these heads of industry were talking about, among many topics, how to vastly increase the production of oil from the Alberta Tar Sands. They were talking about the multi-billion dollar pipeline projects that are being planned to move Tar Sands oil to refineries on the Texas and Louisiana coasts, to refineries in the Midwest and Colorado and even to shipping facilities on the rocky coast of Maine.
What they were talking about were projects and actions that will impact whether or not many of the bird species that were wintering within miles of their Texas meeting place will still be there in generations to come.
In places like Texas and Florida, business and government leaders made and continue to make decisions that mean that birds like Florida Scrub-Jays, Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, Golden-cheeked Warblers, and Black-capped Vireo will continue to struggle for existence in the remnants of habitat that can still support them. Their day-to-day decisions mean that a pair of Florida Scrub-Jays I saw this year in a patch of scrub in central Florida will be gone in a few years and they will be the last to ever occur in that place.
The Boreal is one of the last places on earth where we have the chance to do things differently. Already it is almost certain that there will come a day when the last Woodland Caribou is seen in the Tar Sands region of Alberta, perhaps also the last Short-billed Dowitcher or Rusty Blackbird or Bay-breasted Warbler.
Let us hope that the leaders of industry will hear through the corporate meeting room walls the calls of people who want something different for ourselves and our children.