We’re Destroying Our Planet and All the Wild Things On It
Jane Alexander on Extinction, Pollution, and Fracking
The Merlin shot out of the forest and nabbed the young Tree Swallow out of the air so quickly that all witnesses were caught off guard, including the chick’s parents and me. As the Falcon made for the woods, the fledgling tight in its talons, the adult swallows took after him, joined by two others. It didn’t matter; they would never catch up to one of the fastest birds in the world.
The Merlin pair was decimating the local population of Swallow and Warbler young. I ran along the trail weaving through spruces hoping to catch sight of the two Merlin nestlings as the Swallow was deposited before them. I was too late. The parents wheeled anxiously around the nest tree, screaming at my intrusion, and the chicks hunkered down out of sight.
Raptors such as Merlins are top carnivores in the bird world, just as canids and felines are among mammals—who would eat a Merlin if they could catch one.
Feral cats were wiping out ground-nesting birds in our woods one summer and grabbing those under the feeders as well. I counted three different feral cats over the course of the year. When a particularly large black one with fangs for incisors crossed the dirt road with four kittens in tow, I’d had enough. I pondered ways to do them all in. I prayed for Great Horned Owls and Coyotes to visit.
My mother used to say, “Beware of what you want, because you will probably get it.” Within 48 hours a pack of Coyotes woke me at midnight baying and yelping like hounds from hell. Across the pond they sounded like 20 animals but were probably about ten frantically barking juveniles summoned by the alpha female to the kill. Then there was dead silence.
Was it one of the big Snowshoe Hares that were so tame around us? Or the Ruffed Grouse and her chicks in the sphagnum moss? Or the Muskrat in her mounded den in the cattails?
The rampage lasted for hours. In the days that followed it became clear that the feral cats had disappeared, along with Hares, Otter pups, Muskrats, and just about anything else that couldn’t outrun or outwit the predators. There is something primeval, even frightening, in the howl of a pack as they come through the land.
I never feared Coyotes until the folksinger Taylor Mitchell was tragically killed by two of them while walking a trail in eastern Nova Scotia in 2009. It is highly unusual for Coyotes to attack human beings. I have spied them from California to New York and never gave them a thought except for the safety of my little dog Drama. Rangers soon shot the killer Coyotes, a third larger in Nova Scotia than those in the American West, but not part wolf as some believed. Why they attacked the young woman is unclear, but the Coyote is fairly new to the province, and in the wilderness of Cape Breton it may have developed no fear of human beings. Nova Scotia is such a benign place with regard to wildlife that it is a shock to think about Coyotes attacking. There are no poisonous snakes, or insects except for ticks, and no large mammals to fear except the occasional rogue bear if we happen to both be out getting blueberries in the same spot.
Although the Coyote is an effective predator, I know of no studies on the number of mammals and birds they kill annually. It is different with cats. A recent study by Smithsonian scientists surprised everyone when it reported that free-ranging house cats, strays, and feral cats kill a whopping 1.4 to 3.7 billion birds and as many as 20 billion small mammals a year in North America.
Cats are superbly designed for attack and can each take two hundred creatures a year. They don’t always eat them either, preferring sometimes to toy with them, as any house cat owner can tell you. The American Bird Conservancy’s “Cats Indoors” campaign has been urging the general public to keep cats inside, where they are protected from external diseases and not harming millions of birds. There are more cat owners today than at any time in our history and more people releasing them to the wild when they cannot care for them. While I would never endorse the annual trek to the river that my mother took with us children, cloth sack in hand full of newborn kittens to be drowned, it is irresponsible for cat owners to let their cats procreate with abandon or dump them in the woods as a problem for others. Neutering and spaying of feral cats, while well intentioned, does absolutely nothing to save the bird population and has not made much of a dent in the cat population, either; with as many as 80 million still roaming around, they can’t all be captured.
Cats are the number-one killer of birds, after habitat loss, with windows coming in third. Almost a billion birds are estimated to die in collisions with glass where they cannot distinguish between reflection and reality. It is a sobering sight to see dead birds like the Northern Shrike, clearly not city dwellers, at the base of skyscrapers in Chicago during migration, or in Toronto, where massive new high-rises have especially egregious glass panes. Architects and builders are just beginning to be aware of the problem, and although it costs more, some are installing bird-friendly glass and designing with avian species in mind. Homeowners can prevent collisions by pasting raptor-shaped decals on large windows or placing shades strategically.
Wind power is the fastest growing energy system in North America, but it can be deadly to birds when huge numbers of the turbines are erected in migratory paths. Curiously, it is bats that are killed most often. One would think with their superb echolocation they would automatically avoid the gigantic blades, but mysteriously they seem to be attracted to them. The sudden drop in air pressure close to the blades is enough to burst their lungs and they fall dead to the ground. In migration from Canada to Central America hundreds of dead bats can be found beneath the wind towers. However, when the blades revolve just a fraction more slowly the bats survive. Wind farms are starting to absorb the one percent production loss to keep bats alive.
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On a sylvan summer day in the mid-70s I was driving a New York state highway in my little VW Rabbit with the top down, and ten-year-old Jon in the passenger seat, when a doe came out of the blue and leapt over the car, almost landing on Jon’s head. She was killed instantly, but the fawn in her womb struggled to survive, its tiny hooves beating against her dark chamber. I would have slit open her belly and birthed it had I had a knife. We watched helplessly for ten minutes before life was extinguished.
More than 200 people in the United States die annually in car accidents involving deer, and many more of the animals succumb. Although attacks from bears, Cougars, snakes, and sharks are on the rise as our population expands into the animals’ habitats, the likelihood of death from these attacks is remote, less than a handful for each species every year. General car accidents in 2015 accounted for more than 38 thousand people dying, while the murder of human beings by other human beings amounted to more than 14 thousand. Human beings kill more of everything.
We are all killers. We may not acknowledge it, but it is not just the rapacious carnivore who kills. None of us gets a free pass. Every living thing on earth consumes some other living thing. There is even a fungus that grows only a millimeter every 100 years, slowly digesting the rock it lives on . . . very slowly. Even rocks are living things if you believe, as Ovid did, that life is matter constantly undergoing metamorphoses—rocks break down over millions of years. We are all changing the equation of the earth with every footprint and every meal.
The glory of life is the incalculable variety of forms and functions that exist. No one knows how many species there are, but estimates put the number close to 8 million. Microbiologists point out, however, that in a single teaspoon of soil there can be as many as ten thousand bacteria. Only 1.5 million species of flora and fauna have been named and cataloged. The backlog for taxonomists is significant, and scientists keep reporting 15 thousand new species annually. Most of the megafauna—the large animals over one hundred pounds, which include deer and human beings—have been cataloged and are the ones in danger of going extinct. It is no surprise the animals are dying; humans have been hunting them for 200,000 years.
After the mass extinction of the dinosaurs 66 million years ago, a small, sweet-looking weaselly creature named Protungulatum donnae, our ancestor, evolved. Paleontologists conjecture that it ate insects, was arboreal, and had a furry beige coat and a white belly. (A white belly? How do they know?)
I relate to this mammal: two eyes, a nose, padded paws with five fingers, live birth, and so on. We humans actually share 95 percent of her DNA—but then, we share 75 percent with the nematode worm and 50 percent with the garden pea, so that doesn’t mean much, except that the template for all life is the same and only cements our connectedness.
In the ensuing 65 million years, the continents shifted, these little prosimian creatures evolved and radiated, and by the Eocene period, 55 million years ago, many survived on the isolated island of Madagascar to become lemurs or lorises in Southeast Asia. Elsewhere, around thirty-five million years ago, little monkeys appeared with larger brains and more forward-facing eyes. It is an exceedingly long time from 35 million years ago to around 50 thousand years ago, when “modern” human beings made their way out of Africa and began to disperse. Waves of hominids came and went as our ancestor was refined, creating complex tools, language, and art.
We were omnivores from the start, the more carnivorous among us living nearer the poles, subsisting on seal, other mammals, birds, and fish. Around 12 thousand years ago, some of us stopped wandering, tilled the soil, and planted seeds. A few animals were domesticated. Clearing the land also meant killing wild animals: deer and Wild Boars for food and wolves and Cougars out of fear. Food and fear are the two great motivating forces of human behavior; without either we would simply not survive. The rampant exploitation of animal skins became possible with guns. Without needing to meet the eye of our prey, we created another step removing us from our familial connection to animals. It is easier to kill when the “otherness” of your victim is emphasized, when he is an object, not a living being like yourself.
The wild animal fear factor is primal, and a healthy respect for them is necessary, but killing them as “nuisance” animals is warranted only when they are diseased or documented man-killers. Wildlife Services is a federal program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It was called Animal Damage Control for more than a hundred years, initially providing rodent and pest control for crops. It has developed into a well-oiled killing machine for just about anyone who wishes the removal—death or otherwise—of an offending animal, and has the funds to pay for it, at least partially. The rest is borne by taxpayers, who have no idea they are bankrolling the deaths of as many as four million birds and other animals annually.
Twenty-two thousand and 500 Beavers were killed by Wildlife Services in 2014 alone.
The Beaver is one of nature’s great creatures, clearing land indefatigably to build dams to house its young, safe from predators. Streams and lakes back up and create spawning areas for fish and amphibians, attracting birds and mammals of all kinds.
Beavers can certainly be annoying to human beings. In our case, a Beaver decided that the sluice of our pond, which drained overflow into the ocean, was a perfect spot to build a dam. Had he succeeded, the water would have backed up, eventually flooding the first floor of our house. The Beaver spent every night cutting saplings and strategically placing them over the sluice. Every morning friends and I would haul the night’s construction away. This did not deter the master builder. The game of patience became intense, neither of us giving up. Finally, after many weeks, he was sufficiently discouraged to move on to another pond. My admiration for his tenacity was immense. There is absolutely no good reason to annihilate 22,500 of these magnificent animals.
Wildlife Services is at work eliminating most of the existing Mute Swans on the East Coast—these are the beautiful big white birds of picture postcards and swan boats. The bird is designated an “invasive species.” It “invaded”—that is, was brought in from Europe for its beauty—more than 100 years ago, which trumps its other designation of “protected species.” So much for being special. In the Chesapeake Bay the voracious appetite of these swans resulted in the decline of the aquatic vegetation that shelters the crayfish, spawn, and crabs on which the economy depends. What is often not mentioned is that the real culprit is polluted runoff from pesticide- and herbicide-soaked lawns and farms that line the shores of the bay, putrefying the vegetation. People first.
Wildlife Services does no service to wildlife at all; it is in the pocket of people who have no respect, much less patience, for wildlife. The list of victims in 2014 is the size of a small book and includes 454 River Otters, 250 Barn Owls, 5,000 vultures, and 8,971 ravens, one of the most remarkable and intelligent birds in the world.
There are always more humane solutions to be had. The irruption of Snowy Owls from Canada in the winter of 2013, when they could be found from Maine to Idaho, caused problems on the open terrain of airport runways, which mimicked their tundra home. New York killed three of the Snowy Owls and was about to slaughter a dozen more at JFK airport when the New York Audubon Society asked its members to get on the phone. We bird lovers knew of a successful program at Boston’s Logan Airport begun decades ago by one thoughtful man, Norman Smith, who personally wrangled each and every Snowy Owl and released them in safe territory. In 2014 he safely released 120 of the runway owls. Audubon was successful in halting the New York owl slaughter in a similar way. That is, until 2016, when a court ruled that airports had a right to kill them.
Four million animal deaths at the hands of government programs may pale in comparison to the number of birds alone killed by cats and windows, but as taxpayers we have their blood on all our hands. Wildlife Services, hunting, cats, and windows take an enormous toll on the lives of birds and other animals. But it is loss of habitat that is the primary and most insidious killer of wildlife. The human population keeps expanding despite predictions only 40 years ago that it would level out when women of the world had enough education and economic security to take control of their bodies. It has not worked out that way. The First World countries of Europe and North America have reduced their populations, and some populations are even in decline, although with the infusion of immigrants from other parts of the world the numbers will rise. But women are still repressed the world over, refused education, enslaved, and provided little health care. Until the political and spiritual lives in these repressive countries change, the human population will continue to grow, and the animal population will decline.
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When we first moved to Nova Scotia in 1998, I would sometimes forget the speed limit was in kilometers per hour, not miles per hour. I have always owned a convertible, loving the wind on my face and hair and the sight of a full arching sky where raptors circle and clouds pillow on the horizon. I joyously gunned my Audi convertible one day on a lonely stretch of Canadian highway until the speedometer registered close to 100. The speed was exhilarating. Only later did I realize that speed sign meant 100 kilometers per hour, not the 160 kilometers I was driving, and how lucky I was not to have been arrested by a Mountie.
Cars are amazing inventions. I would be bereft without mine. I understand why everyone in the world wants one. China has created a huge middle class in the past decade with wealth enough to buy not only ivory but also cars. The number of cars in the cities of China will probably pass the 189 million in the United States by 2020. The infrastructure is not in place to handle the number of roads necessary or the carbon emissions from exhaust pipes. One Chinese traffic jam in 2014 extended for several days and more than 60 miles. Pollution in Beijing has become so deadly that on the U.S. embassy rooftop it has measured 886 parts per million, more than twice the most extreme measurement in the United States and considered highly toxic. Yet the population keeps growing and solar-powered vehicles are still in the design stage.
Stephen Hawking has a sobering perspective: “The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies.” We may never know if we are alone in this vast universe, or whether we are superior or inferior to creatures on other planets in other solar systems, but we do know where we rank in the hierarchy of our own planet at this point in time. We are dominating all existent life-forms. As the most adaptable mammal in the world we could in theory feed and house all of us satisfactorily if we had the will to make it happen. We also could coexist with our fellow creatures if we had the will. But we have hurled ourselves headlong into destructive practices, heedless of the consequences to Mother Earth and to ourselves. Stephen Hawking says everything could perish in the 22nd century.
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It was springtime in the woods of northern Pennsylvania, the expansive and deep forests that go on for hundreds of miles. We looked down on the “little grand canyon” of the state, a lovely glacial ravine with excellent trout fishing in the Pine Creek-Susquehanna River, which meets up with the Allegheny and Genesee to form the continental triple divide. Each river takes a different course, the Allegheny heading ultimately to the Gulf of Mexico, the Genesee to the North Atlantic, and the Susquehanna to the Chesapeake Bay.
My birding friends from Pennsylvania Audubon and I were listening to courting warblers in the oaks and pines when we finally saw the fire-engine red of the Scarlet Tanager as it skirted the tree-tops, burbling its lazy robin-like song. We have only four bright red birds in North America: the Northern Cardinal, the Vermilion Flycatcher, the Summer Tanager, and the Scarlet Tanager. They dazzle the eye in their breeding plumage.
Male Scarlets arrive in the forest to scout nesting sites in May, singing from a spot high in the canopy. Although they are a common bird of the eastern United States they can be difficult to see so high up. Tanagers need large tracts of forest; they are secretive and try to hide from Brown-headed Cowbirds, which parasitize other birds’ nests by placing their eggs in them. But Cowbirds rarely venture deep into the forest, preferring to do their skulduggery near forest edges where they can see the comings and goings of different birds and then dash in to make a deposit. Pennsylvania’s extensive oak forests are coveted habitat for Scarlet Tanagers, and it is estimated that 10 to 13 percent of the entire population nests there. The Scarlet Tanager needs four to eight acres of unfragmented forest for breeding.
In a twist of fate, 1.5 million acres of the glorious Pennsylvania forest hosts the lucrative Marcellus Shale beneath it, the pot of gold for natural gas extraction, now expedited by hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources is charged with managing “the state forest system for many uses and values—including natural gas development—all the while protect- ing its ecological integrity and wild character,” says the state website. Tell that to the Tanagers.
Pennsylvania has a long history of drilling. It took advantage of massive oil reserves throughout the 20th century. Hydraulic fracturing for natural gas seemed a natural and exciting new development for the state and an answer to economic depression. By 2015 the state had more than 6,000 active fracking wells and was planning to increase that tenfold.
I wanted to fly over Tioga County to see what fragmentation of the forest was occurring with the well pads. Anyone who has ever flown over a mine, logging, or drill site has seen the wounds made by extraction. Even the cleanup later, if there is any, reveals a pale place with little relationship to what once was. Half a mountaintop blasted away to reach veins of coal is covered over with grasses and lines of trees that rarely entice original inhabitants back in the next 20 or 100 years. The complex relationship of the soil to the plants and insects that are born from it is compromised forever. Extraction always takes its toll on the body of the earth, as it does on the body of a human being. The extractive practices of timbering, mining, and drilling are surgical operations: remove the wart, the tumor, or the organ and sew it back up. Fracking is like injecting gallons of water and chemicals into a main artery to explode the blood vessels and suck out the blood. There is hardly a corpus left after the operation. The damage inside is extensive.
Our single-engine plane began its journey over the pristine forest, which covers almost 60 percent of the state, sheltering the great rivers, which cut into the bedrock lining the steep mountainsides. There is wildness to it, a comfort in the belief that wild things are safe even though you cannot see them. Black Bears, White-tailed Deer, Opossums, Porcupines, and other common denizens of the northeastern United States are plentiful and have had little to fear in the past except hunting season.
As we veered south, the well pads for the drills and the cleared ground that each pad needed came into view, neatly cut out of the forest, or nestled beside farms like blocks on a chessboard. Every well site, or “pad,” for fracturing needs three to seven acres, leveled so trucks and drills have open access. There may be as many as 150 contiguous well pads covering 1,000 acres, with numerous compressor stations in between. The drill is bored into the ground vertically for a mile under the enormous pressure of a million gallons of water and chemicals. It then bores horizontally through the shale, fracturing it to extract the gas. What is not seen from the air is the destruction below the earth, the crisscross of pipes and the blasted shale rock extending for miles underground.
The natural settling of the earth’s mantle is compromised by fracking. More than 1,000 earthquakes occurred in 2014 in Oklahoma and Texas alone because of the lubrication of fault lines due to fracking. The noise from constant drilling for weeks on end at a well pad is enough to drive most mammals and birds from the area, and the seismic activity underground must displace as many creatures below. Trucks by the hundreds rumble through the roads day and night delivering equipment and removing waste while the stacks of fire burning off methane light up the night sky. Local streams, lakes, and rivers are often used to cart or pipe the million or more gallons needed for each well, depleting natural flow and water levels. Wendell Berry’s environmental golden rule, “Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you,” holds no sway with frackers.
I could not imagine the Tioga County landscape with the 60,000 to 100,000 well pads planned by 2030. The local people put up with the stygian scene because many get a healthy check for leasing their land. The sensitive Scarlet Tanager doesn’t have a say in the matter. People say it won’t go on forever. But will it? The toxicity of the chemicals used may be with us for many generations.
Fracking took off in 2007 when an exemption—not a coincidence—to the Clean Water Act called the Halliburton (or Cheney) Loophole was passed by Congress giving companies the right to withhold information about injected chemicals. The Environmental Protection Agency’s 2004 report stated that “the injection of hydraulic fracturing fluids into . . . wells poses little or no threat to USDWs [underground sources of drinking water] and does not justify additional study at this time.”
More than 600 different chemicals have been tried in fracking fluid, including concentrations and compounds of chloride, bromide, strontium, barium, benzene, methane, and the NORMs (naturally occurring radioactive materials—uranium, radium, and radon). These chemicals have all been suspected in the injection of wells and have been found in the “flowback,” the fluids that return to the surface of the wellhead during fracking. The chemicals also live on in the slurry of water and shale after the gas is siphoned out, and in the air. They infiltrate streams and drinking water to the point where methane in tap water can be lit with a match.
The chemicals are toxic to animals and plants. People living near well pads have reported an increase in nosebleeds, abdominal pains, headaches, rashes, and diarrhea. Scientists have found a correlation between a rise in hospital visits and that of fracking sites in three counties in northeastern Pennsylvania. The number of chemicals impacting human and animal health increases with each new study. These chemicals can have very long lives, especially the radioactive ones.
My Nebraska grandfather, Dr. Daniel Quigley, went to visit Madame Marie Curie in France in 1913. He returned to Omaha with two small chunks of radium, and opened the first Radium Hospital west of the Mississippi to treat cancer. My dad told me that the radium was kept in the icebox in their kitchen. Its volatility was known, but not the creeping deadliness of its poison. My grandfather lost his middle finger—the one he used to place radium on cervical cancers—and his skin was the color of a bad sunburn for the rest of his life. He almost glowed in the dark. My grandmother developed a tumor and half her brain was removed. She never functioned fully again. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
As our little plane circled back toward the airport and the view of well pads spotted the landscape to the horizon, Tioga County’s planning director, Jim Weaver, in the seat behind me, said through the earphones, “You are looking at the last gasp of fossil fuels.”
I believe him. Our reliance on fossil fuels is coming to an end. Economically it will not make sense much longer, when the cost of holding down carbon emissions exceeds the costs of extraction. Yet as it sputters out we continue to inflict damage on our earth, air, and water, without calculating the cost to human and environmental health. Our country is at last independent of foreign oil and gas and is riding the wave of prosperity and cheap prices at the pump like a rodeo cowboy on a Brahma bull holding on for as long as he can, heedless of the crash to come.
From Wild Things, Wild Places by Jane Alexander. Copyright © 2016 by Jane Alexander. Published by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.