Documenting the Apocalypse


Wilcove, D. S The Condor's Shadow: the Loss and Recovery of Wildlife in America. . 1999 . Freeman , New York . 339 pp. $24.95. ISBN 0-7167-3115-0 .

If historical accounts of wildlife responses to human occupation of the Earth interest you, then you will enjoy reading The Condor's Shadow. If you are not sure how wildlife responds to human domination of the Earth, then you should be required to read this fascinating, well-written, popular account of endangered wildlife in America. In it, David Wilcove treats us to an ecologist's view of the changes wrought by humans on America's once wild places. By augmenting clear examples from the well-cited scientific literature with his unique personal experiences as a research ecologist and land steward, Wilcove updates Matthiessen's (1959) classic Wildlife in America. His account is necessarily biased toward the plight of birds and mammals, but it also provides interesting glimpses into the challenges facing plants, fish, and mollusks.

The story begins 12,000 years ago when humans and their “mindless horsemen of the environmental apocalypse”—overkill, habitat destruction, exotics, and disease; Wilson 1992—arrived in the heart of North America. The result of this prehistoric immigration and subsequent exploration and colonization from Europe started the continuing transformation of the land cover of North America which is responsible for the endangerment of roughly 16% of the present biota. Wilcove takes us on a fascinating, albeit depressing, tour of this conquest across the continent and associated islands. He emphasizes a recurrent process in how we use the land: we log it, farm it, and then pave it.

Starting near his present home ( Washington, D.C.), Wilcove discusses the loss of large predators and tasty passenger pigeons to persecution and overhunting. The change in land here is personal: his trips between D.C. and Baltimore that take only an hour would have been major expeditions through glorious old-growth forests 500 years ago. An enlightening early history of the area is recounted, and an important, unsuspected theme arises: despite massive change in land cover and extensive occupancy by humans, relatively few animals native to our eastern deciduous forests have gone extinct (e.g., only 4 of 160 species of birds).

We learn more about how the early pioneers, explorers, conquistadors, and settlers shaped our western forests, Midwestern grasslands, and southern borderlands in chapters 2, 3, and 6. The effects of predator removal, timber harvest, fire suppression, subdivision, agricultural intensification, and overharvest are traced through the last 200–300 years. National extinctions are rare (e.g., thick-billed parrot), but regional ones are more common (wolves, grizzlies, and bison over much of their range). An ebb and flow of animals in the wake of human expansion appears more common than absolute exclusion. Wilcove provides new insights into old stories such as the slaughter of bison, noting that these beasts once wandered east to the Atlantic coast and south to Florida. He debunks the notion that cows are ecological equivalents of bison by noting critical differences in size, mobility, and sociality, and he wryly notes that “unlike the sight of bison, children in a car will not demand that their parents pull over when a herd of cows is seen grazing near the road.” Brewing conservation battles (e.g., prairie dogs) are also discussed clearly and put into historical perspective.

In chapters 4 and 5 we are briefly introduced to the effects of overfishing, water pollution, unsustainable irrigation, and oil spills on lakes, rivers, and coastal waterways. Wilcove breathes new life into many familiar stories here, noting for example how we have completely redesigned western water flow and overfished the Great Lakes. He notes that there are 2.5 million dams in the United States and reminds us that during the last 30 years a new exotic species has become established in the San Francisco Bay ecosystem every 14 weeks! Two counterintuitive observations stuck with me. First the effects of massive oil spills are relatively minor; leaky two-stroke motors and discarded oil from our cars pose much more serious problems. Second, trash on beaches is a sign of ecosystem health; trash accumulates on wild beaches because humans continually tidy up the beaches they affect the most.

In stark contrast to earlier chapters, in chapter 7 Wilcove deals with the true killing fields of biodiversity, the Pacific Islands. Prehistoric humans likely drove 50–70% of all Hawaiian birds to extinction. We have followed closely in their footsteps by knocking off another half of the 50 native bird species known since Cook dropped anchor in Kealakekua Bay in 1778. Twenty percent of the world's avifauna has already been extinguished by our propensity to settle, bomb, and maroon exotic species on the islands of the tropical Pacific. Despite the catastrophic impact of humans on Hawaii, Wilcove downplays its uniqueness, noting simply that it might foreshadow events on the mainland. I would have preferred a more detailed assessment of similarities and differences between human effects on islands and mainlands. Quammen's (1996) popular account of extinction more carefully highlights the plight of island species.

Despite my praise for the discussion of endangerment in chapters 1–7, I believe that Wilcove missed a great opportunity in the last chapter. He leaves us with a few personal musings about condors and the U.S. Endangered Species Act, but he does not synthesize earlier messages and, more important, he does not offer suggestions for the maintenance and restoration of wildlife. He writes that (1) lack of information, (2) a tendency to ignore problems until they become crises, (3) failures to commit adequate resources, and (4) failures to reward landowners for species protection and habitat restoration are the greatest obstacles to effective conservation. He does not tell us how to overcome these obstacles. How do we embrace a more sustainable tenure on the Earth? What current opportunities exist to move further down the path of sustainability? Wilcove should have hit these and other such questions square on. His failure in this respect puts an alarmist rather than a constructive spin on an important book. Nonetheless, The Condor's Shadow will inform and motivate the public, educate the undergraduate, and expand the professional ecologist's understanding of wildlife endangerment.