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Elk meet dawn's light on undeveloped land west of Bozeman. What do human words like "sustainability," "balance" and "compromise" mean to a wapiti? Photo by Holly Pippel

USA - Gobbledygook? Are Feel-Good Words Failing The Cause Of Wildlife Conservation?

THOSE WHO TOSS AROUND TERMS LIKE "SUSTAINABILITY" OFTEN STRUGGLE TO EXPLAIN WHAT THEY REALLY MEAN IN THE CONTEXT OF PROTECTING AMERICA'S PRIVATE AND PUBLIC WILD LANDS

Sustainability.

We hear the word spoken and written all the time, ubiquitously, by federal and state land management agencies, conservation groups, business people, ranchers, farmers and politicians.

But ask yourself, what does “sustainability” really mean?

In any proposed action or inaction, it’s important to wonder what is being sustained, for whom, and at what cost to other things?

Modern eco-speak can be a veritable salad bar of amorphous terminology and acronyms. What springs to mind when you hear the words “conservation,” “balance,” “fairness,” “stakeholders,” “stewardship,” “common ground,” “shared values,” and outcomes purporting to be “win-win” solutions?

If a panorama of land, public or private, home to resident and migratory wildlife, has its ability to sustain a healthy population of native animals cut in half, or whittled down with each human decision, then is that a “win-win” for humans and wildlife?  

Such terminology like that above is central to the lingua franca of modern natural resource allocation. In the parlance of  “consensus and collaboration,” the words often are invoked as part of a process of human user groups coming together and divvying up things that are not boundless, but actually finite and rare, like wildness.

Wildness is defined here as a place where wild animals can persist.  And what is a wild land if it cannot maintain—sustain or conserve—its wild life?

As concepts, the rhetoric sounds good when it rolls off the tongue and reaches the ear. Like “freedom” and “liberty,” “patriotism” and “rugged individualism.” Yet when their purveyors are hard pressed to explain what exactly they mean, when put into practice—particularly in discussions that involve what it will take to save the greatest wildlife ecosystem remaining in the Lower 48 of America—often they get tongue tied.

Not long ago, I had a chat with a senior national forest manager in Greater Yellowstone and the person struggled to provide a coherent response when I asked how sustainability, conservation and the other terms, above, might be interpreted, say, by the animals inhabiting public and private landscapes, dealing with a steady, ongoing incursion of more humans and development.

If grizzly bears, elk, moose, mule deer, pronghorn, wild trout, bison, wolves, wolverines, bighorn sheep, and mountain goats, among other species in Greater Yellowstone, could speak English and testify at a public hearing or submit comments about what’s happening to them, what would they say? And would we be listening?  

The Forest Service person and I were discussing a recently completed national forest management plan that is supposed to guide human uses going forward for at least a couple of decades.  Given the whirlwind of intense human pressure that descended on various parts of Greater Yellowstone in just the past few years due to Covid, I asked the civil servant what the current trendlines of sprawl, crowding, habitat loss, native species being displaced by growing numbers of recreationists and water challenges portend for wildlife in just another decade?

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