In the Backcountry
We are visitors to the wilderness when we enter backcountry areas. And as visitors, we should take heed to understand and respect the propriety of the plants and animals who have resided there long before we ever showed up. The law of the land is such that responsible visitation looks like passive observation, and not active participation. Like every other facet of Leave No Trace, extensive prior knowledge serves as an exceptionally useful tool for keeping our interactions with wildlife passive and uninterruptive. To know the ways and means, the preferences, the daily rituals, and the usual distribution of local flora and fauna is what allows us to to be considerate of their wants and needs and to actively put ourselves in a position of unobtrusiveness, just like we would like to be unobtrusive when first entering the home of a newfound friend. In order to treat wildlife with their due respect:
- Observe quietly. Loud noises are stressful to animals, as in nature they are usually warning calls that say “You’ve come too close! Any closer and I will be forced to defend my space”. You’d be on high alert too if an animal started clearly vocalizing its discomfort with your presence.
- Keep your distance and use the “rule of thumb” when interacting with wildlife. Hold out your thumb at arm’s length. If the animal is larger than your thumb from that perspective, you are too close, and you should try to give them some more space. Never pursue animals to the point that they will flee- this is an unnecessary waste of their energy, which can be a very limited resource especially in harsh environments
- If you see an animal that exhibits the signs of rabies, or is clearly sick, wounded, or in trouble, be especially careful because they are more likely be feel defensive and bite, scratch, or otherwise injure you. Contact the game warden, your local Department of Natural Resources office or land management agency so that they can investigate and handle it instead of you getting personally involved.
- Never touch or handle young animals, even if you think they’ve been abandoned or are in need of help. They may seem vulnerable, but they do not need our help, and handling of them may lead their parents to abandon them. Many species generate far more offspring than their environment can support, and these vulnerable offspring ultimately form an important food source for predators. It may seem harsh, but it is no more harsh than our propensity for eating meat, and is ultimately what supports higher levels of the ecosystem.
- Be mindful of animals’ reliance on water sources. Make sure to give them space to drink, especially at night when they can safely drink under the cover of darkness. Camp away from water sources, and while it’s okay to swim in most lakes or streams, don’t go for a dip in isolated pools in the desert because they are very easily polluted by our body oils, sunscreens, and DEET.
Most of us bring a camera into the wilderness, and hope to snap some compelling wildlife photos to take home with us, share with our friends and family, and enjoy for years to come. Our desire for wildlife selfies has lead to a number of stories lately of people that have gotten too close while trying to take a selfie with the wildlife in our national parks and backcountry areas, and they are likely to continue happening as the interface between us and wildlife blurs with the expansion of our residential areas and increased tourism and recreation to wild spaces. National Geographic produced a great article about how to ethically photograph wildlife, which is worth checking out if you regularly enter the backcountry with the intent of photographing the local wildlife.
The ways that we consume natural resources and the overall impacts of climate change have lead to population decline in a whopping 60% of species around the world since 1970 according to the World Wildlife Fund. The biodiversity of life on earth is what has made and what continues to make the earth habitable and productive. The plants and animals that we rely on to fulfill our needs for food, shelter, clean air and water, and healthy soils ; they themselves rely on a set of natural cycles like the water, carbon, and rock cycles you may remember learning about if you took an earth science class in school. At the most basic level, there are producers like plants that can grow and create their own energy using just sunlight, water, and mineral nutrients, and there are consumers like us that create energy by eating the producers, only to return that energy into the system when we poop or when we die. Bacteria and fungi then take part in the decomposition of that organic matter, and return it back to the soil in a form that the producers can use, thus restarting the whole cycle. The producers also rely on the regularity of rainfall and erosion to make available the supply of water and minerals they need to grow, and in turn regulate those systems themselves by producing oxygen and moisture as byproducts. A decrease in biodiveristy disrupts every part of the system, from the stability of our climate to the ability of any given species to survive and reproduce. The current trend is, at best, troublesome and is one that may have started hundreds or thousands of years ago as human population ceaselessly spread across the globe. Still, it is the increased rate of population decline within the last century that now warrants serious concern.
The World Wildlife Fund’s “Living Planet Report” from 2018 is a useful resource to learn more specifically about each of the elements of biodiversity loss, and their plan for slowing and reversing the trend:
On the Individual Level
In addition to actively reducing our consumption, there’s a lot we can do to help maintain the world’s biodiversity:
- Don’t buy or sell products made from protected species. If you’re not sure, do your research first and when in doubt don’t participate in the market. The decline of biodiversity has made the list of protected species a few thousand long, so check the National Fish and Wildlife Service’s “Guide to Wildlife and Plant Protection Laws” to get a sense of what is and is not legal here in the US
- Find alternatives to killing predators. Where our territories overlap with theirs, predators can pose a threat to us, our livestock and fisheries, and our pets. Striking a balance that would reduce conflict with these species in a way that is sustainable, but does not ultimately lead to a dramatic decline in their population or their extinction, can be difficult to achieve. The eradication of wolves and reintroduction of wolves in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem illustrates the complexity of this issue. The reintroduction initiative has shown signs of success in managing the elk population and allowing vegetation to regrow, but not enough to fully restore the ecosystem in just 20 years. It’s also given ranchers one more thing to worry about, and had major impacts on the elk hunting industry that had been made so successful since the wolves had been gone. The Wood River Wolf Project in Idaho serves as a good example of how wolf advocates and ranchers are working together to keep the wolves and the livestock safe by using guard dogs (and even llamas!), deterrents, and range riders, and the USDA has produced this thorough booklet about all the different predation management techniques that can be employed.
- Buy sustainably, legally harvested wood, use less paper, and recycle what you do use. Check for the Forest Stewardship Council‘s logo or ask your supplier about how they source their products. Logging constitutes a huge amount of forest destruction each year, but by ensuring that the products you buy are sources sustainably will help to reduce the amount of illegal and unsustainable logging that constitutes the majority of forest loss each year.
- Eat a mostly plant-based diet. 60% of global biodiversity loss comes down to the foods we eat. We use about 26% of all the ice-free land on earth to raise the 1 billion cows, 23 billion chickens, 1 billion sheep, 1 billion goats, and nearly 1 billion pigs we have in the world. Not to mention the reverberating impacts we have had on our fisheries, where over 7 billion fish are consumed each year, and roughly 30% of our fish stocks are fished unsustainably. The solution here is really simple: eat less meat, both red and white, and if you do eat fish, make sure it was sourced sustainably. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has this sweet app that you can use to find ocean-friendly seafood.
- Hunt and fish ethically. This is complex topic, but I think this article written by a philosopher about the morality of hunting wraps it up pretty well. Hunting or fishing to remove invasive species, like goats on a fragile island ecosystem, or to provide the only viable option for sustenance, like the hunting of bowhead whales by the Inupiat people of Northern Alaska; both of these are easily defensible. Sport hunting and fishing, however, have a greater potential for damage. Arguably, most sport hunters/fisherman give back far more than they take. The costs of hunting and fishing support a massive industry, that is largely conservation-minded but it only takes one bad apple to spoil the bunch. Know what you are hunting or fishing. Know the laws and regulations, and ask yourself critically whether taking that animal is justified, not just for you but for the ecosystem as a whole.
The key to respecting wildlife is to understand their needs. Historically, the way to do this was through observation. Henry David Thoreau famously spent two years in a cabin near Walden Pond in Massachusetts, making detailed observations of the flora and fauna he encountered there while examining his own self-reliance and personal growth as it related to his natural surroundings. He came to understand how his own needs and desires, and our collective needs and desires impacted the landscape around him. Nowadays, the real life observations of people from around the world are made publicly available through the internet and through entire libraries of books on the inner-workings of mother nature and all of her kin. Some combination of observation and research has led to my own respect for wildlife and our dependence on its biodiversity. I know not to fear bears while in the wilderness, because I also know what drives them to confront people– the easier it is for them to get food from us, the more likely they are to mess with us. This has taught me to keep my food out of reach, by hanging bear bags, and much more effectively by using a bear canister (some people use smell-proof Ursack bags), and by understanding the risk of a negative encounter wherever I am. The same is true of every species, whether or not they are likely to mess with me. Every species on the planet relies on the complex web of living and non-living resources that define the environment they live in. To know how the members of the phylum cyanobacteria shaped our atmosphere into the oxygen-rich air that we breath, how through endosymbiosis they led to the genesis of chloroplasts and therefore virtually all modern photosythenthetic plants, how its species can lead to toxic algal blooms, swimmers itch, the basis for humongous aquatic foodwebs, the red sea, and also a superfood drink that makes flamingoes pink and has inspired a song from one of my favorite modern reggae artists: to know about the history and habits of a species is to understand its importance and the best methods for protecting its place in our world. Here are a few of my favorite resources for learning about biology:
- The Crash Course Biology Youtube series has been a staple of mine. Essentially the video version of a bathroom book. I watch it while cooking or eating, in down time, or as a reference.
- The Cambell Biology textbook, which I found a used copy of in the 8th edition (2007), on Abebooks.com for less than $10.
- The Bozeman Science Youtube Channel, which has more technical college-level educational series about not only biology, but also chemistry, science standards, anatomy and physiology
- Whatbird.com, the National Audubon Society’s bird guide, and David Allen Sibley’s Bird guides and blog are all great resources for the amateur or experienced birder
- The National Audubon Society also has a plethora of field guides and regional guides on everything from trees, fossils, and amphibians, to the night sky in a 28 book series
- The LifeMap App for Google Play is a fun tool to discover how different species are related to each other and to learn about phylogeny and taxonomy.
- Some of my favorite books are either directly about biology, or use biology as a tool to tell a story, like Moby Dick by Herman Melville, Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, Joseph Banks: A Life by Patrick O’Brien, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne, just to name a few.