Micromanaging Darwin

The US Fish and Wildlife Service plans to slaughter 36,000 Barred Owls in California, Washington, and Oregon, according to a story in the Washington Post last Friday. Why? Because this “invasive” species (they migrated from the eastern United States on their own 70 years ago) is threatening the Spotted Owl.

Northern Spotted Owl

The Northern Spotted Owl. Note the white spots on the back feathers.

You may recall the Northern Spotted Owl.  It lives in a limited territory among the big timber of the Pacific Northwest, as well as in scattered mountainous regions all the way down into Mexico.  It was put on the Endangered Species list in 1990, and subsequently became a topic of political controversy.  The owl’s protection in its habitat inconveniences the logging industry, and George H. W. Bush castigated Bill Clinton’s pro-environment stand by famously saying that if the tree-huggers had their way “we’d be up to our necks in spotted owls and every American [would be] out of work.”  How cruel to insult the species by including it in such ludicrous political blather.

Now, however, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service [never understood this—fish isn’t a kind of wildlife?] is embarking on something even more egregious under the rubric of saving an endangered species.  It is going to experiment on an Indian Reservation in the Spotted Owl’s territory to see if killing off a more successful competitor, the Barred Owl, will make the Spotted Owl population more robust.

Here’s how:  digitally recorded calls lure the Barred Owls, and people kill them with shotguns. The term they use instead of “kill” is “remove”! The entire program will cost us taxpayers $35M, about $1000 per “removal.”  And they don’t even know if it will work.

So the Barred Owl, who bravely migrated across the prairies of Manitoba, Saskatchewan,

Barred Owl

The Barred Owl. Note white bars on back feathers and vertical brown stripes on chest.

and Alberta, and whose only crime is that it is more assertive than the Spotted Owl, is to be victimized by government officials in the name of social engineering.  What ever happened to the concept of the “survival of the fittest”?  Is the function of a federal government agency to micromanage evolutionary processes in favor of the less able?  Darwin and Spencer must be spinning in their graves.  It’s one thing to manage wildlife when humans have radically altered environments so that heretofore robust species have faltered.  But that’s not the case here.  The analogy to postwar American foreign policy, in which we have practiced the micromanaging of existing communities in the name of “nation building” with a blind eye to the inevitability of larger socio-political processes and forces, suggests itself.  But I wonder why so many Barred Owls have to die to attain the Fish and Wildlife Service’s arbitrary sense of what is “natural,” and I wonder how many other ways $35 million could be used to do something positive for the environment.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2013.


Riding Out Writer’s Block

I’m not going to wait until next week’s “new beginnings” time to start anew with the blog.  For a while I’ve been struggling with “writer’s block,” I guess: the sense that there’s always something more urgent, more imperative, or more interesting to do than write.  Bad habits play a role: I have worked my way into thinking that I need to write at least 500 or 600 words to produce a blog substantive enough to be interesting.   Bad timing plays a role: my cycling life has been curtailed a little by bad weather, conflicting scheduling, the end of the academic semester, more compulsory (and compelling) morning and evening activities.  But we all know deep inside what I have told my writing students for decades, that really it’s all just evasion on some level.  If one needs to write, one writes.

And I do need to write, and I need to channel and focus and hone and refine and imagine and reflect and laugh and wrestle with the irreducible minimum with which we all work: words and syntax.  I hope to write more often, sometimes at length and sometimes briefly, but to keep the words moving as water does, horizontally and vertically, beneath, on and above the surface of the earth, in all three physical states and in diverse isotopic form, in various combinations and mixtures and also in its own purity.  Seeking their own level, their own natural state of being at any one moment.  We’ll see.  Here goes.

Today is the first time I have ridden my bike since December 5.  November in northern Virginia was nasty and glum, and December has frequently been nasty, glum, and unusually cold.  My admirable colleague All Seasons Cyclist (see Blogroll) would sneer at my wimpiness, of course, since he is known to tour the lakeshores of the northern Midwest in sub-zero (Fahrenheit) weather.  But for me windy, rainy, below 40°–I’m not going.  Instead I ride my simple but effective indoor bike, whose most egregious flaw is an unreplacable ultra-wide seat.  I hesitate to set up one of my bikes on a mag trainer, because that makes using it outdoors a real pain, and we get a reasonable amount of temperate winter weather.

Today’s ride was in the sun, with temperatures rising to 46°.  That’s well within my comfort zone.  Just the Gortex jacket with my bionic baselayer, and I am almost too warm.  The sun is so low in the sky right now that it seems to rise and set in practically the same spot, and it surely looks like it struggles to attain any significant angle above the southern horizon.  But it’s warm enough to make a huge difference in comfort, especially in combination with wind from the south, which if not actually warm is at least relatively benign, especially at low velocity.

Not much nature about today, though the hardy winter songbirds like juncos and the overwinterers such as cardinals still move amid the underbrush.  As I came out of the right-of-way I passed a couple of kids with skateboards, who must have had some destination unbeknownst to me.  Rolling along, I was nearly alone as a cyclist, though the numerous groups of walkers indicated that some local residents had guests to entertain and/or a bit of festive weight to shed.  And eventually I passed a couple of slow riders, then a pair of kids goofing off and swerving around—grrrrr.  Around Vienna there was a guy on the trail with what looked like a baby carriage full of old bedding and stuff in plastic bags; I took him to be homeless.  Still in the same area of the trail on my way home.  A couple or three riders in fancy gear passed by, and on the way home from Herndon three such riding together, including two guys in intrepid-looking winter gear and an even more intrepid woman with long blonde hair, who had cycling shorts on in the mid-40s air.  Fifty-five is about as low as I’ll go in shorts; my legs feel more stressed if they’re colder, and I don’t want anything torn or otherwise injured by being not quite supple enough.

All these snappy folks passed me of course, but I was chagrined to be passed by a guy riding a collapsible bike with small wheels, maybe 20 or 22” in diameter.  The thing was geared so that his cadence was about the same as mine: 80 rpm.  But those little tires had to rotate like crazy.  His position on the bike was a bit like a carnival clown’s on a miniature cycle, with knees flying wildly out to the side. He was not going much faster than I, but my body was much in need of a moderate reintroduction to the experience of pedaling a bike along for about 100 minutes.  So I let him go, and enjoyed the remaining ride at my own pace.  I vow there will be many more such excursions ahead.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2013.