After the Grizzly: Endangered Species and the Politics of Place in California. Alagona, P. S. 2013. University of California Press, Berkeley, California. 331 pp. $34.95 (hardcover). ISBN 978–0–520–27506–5.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Since its inception in 1973, the ESA has listed 1436 species in the United States and 2054 species worldwide as endangered or threatened (US Fish & Wildlife Service 2013). Critics contend that within its 40-year history, the ESA is responsible for the full recovery and delisting of only 1% of classified species (Clark 1995; Rohlf 2005; Hastings 2011; Benson 2012). However, proponents of the act point out that the relatively short timeline of the ESA has not allowed sufficient time for the recovery of many species and that “90% of all species are recovering at the rate specified by their federal recovery plan” (Talyor et al. 2005; Suckling et al. 2012). So what defines success? To what extent has the ESA succeeded in conserving biodiversity and in creating more sustainable landscapes in the United States? Peter Alagona's After the Grizzly: Endangered Species and the Politics of Place in California explores the complex history of endangered species debates in the continental United States, demonstrates how endangered species have become inextricably linked to the concept of habitat, and shows how this connection has led to a host of political and social problems that are now synonymous with protected areas.
It is interesting to look at the lessons that can be taken from Alagona's environmental history and to think about how they can contribute to our understanding of what a more sustainable future might look like. Sustainability remains a contested and somewhat opaque concept; however, there is near universal agreement that the survival of biodiversity on this planet is likely to be determined by how well humans are able to achieve the sustainable use of natural resources (Lee 2001). Habitat conservation is widely considered the cornerstone of biodiversity preservation and protected areas are often hailed as real-world examples of sustainable land use in practice (Chape et al. 2005; Ervin et al. 2010). Yet, the protected area paradigm itself is inherently flawed and current debates around protected areas are volatile at best (Sax 1993; Cronon 1995; Wilshusen et al. 2002). As Earth's population soars past 7 billion people and as land-use decisions become increasingly important, these conflicts will only continue to escalate.
In part I, Alagona sets the tone of After the Grizzly by describing the multiplicity of interconnected environmental and social forces that eventually lead to the extinction of the grizzly bear (Ursus arctos) in California. Here Alagona develops a prominent theme: debates about species conservation are at least as much about wildlife and ecosystems as they are about the people who share the planet with them. The extinction of the Californian grizzly bear was not just about the exploitation of resources and the destruction of habitat. It was also about “place, and about how the people who lived there understood, envisioned, portrayed, and promoted its political, economic, and ecological future” (pp. 39–40). According to Alagona, the social and political forces at work in the story of the Californian grizzly bear continue to be played out, in various forms, in many other debates about habitat and endangered species. These debates are produced by and arise out of the intersecting fields of environmental science, management, law, and politics. By carefully recounting the history of the ESA, Alagona demonstrates how the complex interplay of various social, political, economic, and scientific factors ultimately converged to make habitat a powerful and enduring framework for understanding endangered species conservation.
In part II, Alagona brings together much of the groundwork he has laid at the beginning of the book in four case studies of endangered species in California. Starting with the story of the Californian Condor (Gymnogyps californianus), Alagona highlights the many problems and paradoxes of habitat conservation as it is presently envisioned and implemented. As with the Californian grizzly bear, the near extinction and eventual recovery and reintroduction of the condor was at least as much about determining the condor's role in California's social and political landscape as it was about setting aside habitat for the animal. The decline of the condor acted as a catalyst for controversies between different groups of people with different ideological visions of what endangered species conservation should look like. As a result, the condor became a symbol for larger debates about the meaning of wilderness and about the relationship between wilderness preservation and wildlife management. Alagona shows that even when the endangered status of a species is effective at changing land and natural resource management practices, species may still struggle to survive. As is the case with the Mojave Desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) that continues to face low fertility and high mortality rates despite having access to vast quantities of desert habitat. The story of the San Joaquin kit fox (Vulpes macrotis mutica) further derails the ideal of habitat conservation because this species continues to decline within its protected areas but thrives in urban landscapes. Finally, with the story of the delta smelt (Hypomesus transpacificus), Alagona demonstrates that endangered species conservation simply cannot be limited to the boundaries of protected areas because some species, such as the delta smelt (a small fish that is extremely vulnerable to a host of ecological parameters including poor water quality, pollutants, invasive species, and salinity levels) depend on an entire ecological process for their survival. Alagona's case studies remind us of how little we actually know about what constitutes habitat and how we urgently need to better understand what different kinds of habitat can contribute to species recovery (Miller & Hobbs 2002; Polasky 2005; Fischer et al. 2008; Olive & Minichiello 2013). All together, Alagona's case studies raise an important question: How can protected areas contribute to achieving sustainability when they are not effective at sustaining biodiversity themselves?
This book is compelling, persuasive, and well crafted. It challenges conventional wisdom about habitat conservation in a way that is clearly meant to convey, to conservation biologists, wildlife managers, and other environmentalists, the importance of better understanding the complexities of endangered species and protected area debates. Yet, although Alagona repeatedly points out the need “to rethink the meaning of habitat” and to have a “broader vision of conservation” (p. 223), his book provides little in terms of potential alternatives. The only solution Alagona offers comes in his calls for more grassroots, community-driven approaches to biodiversity conservation: “Aldo Leopard would have rejected the contemporary framing of endangered species debates as battles of people versus nature. Instead, he believed that it takes entire land communities, working together, to achieve a just, prosperous, and sustainable future” (p. 231). Community-based conservation has become a popular alternative to “fortress conservation” (Murphree 2002; Berkes 2004), but as Berkes (2007) points out this approach to biodiversity conservation can only be effective if it takes into account drivers and institutional links at a local level as well as at multiple other levels. Thus, community-based conservation must extend beyond communities and adapt to the complexities of our multi-level world to reconcile local, national, and global conservation goals. This book has little to offer with regard to what the reevaluation and reconsideration of habitat conservation should look like in practice. Others have made this connection, pointing out the need to address conservation issues as integrated socioecological systems through approaches such as adaptive comanagement (Berkes 2004) and by creating stakeholder incentives (Brandon & Szabo 2011). Herein lies the danger that After the Grizzly may join the long list of other books outlining the problems with and challenges to sustainability that ultimately end up gathering dust on the bookshelves of managers and policy makers.
Nevertheless, Alagona's call to “rethink habitat conservation” should not fall on deaf ears. This book can improve understanding of sustainability because it reminds us of the complex and interdependent nature of sustainability challenges. We cannot continue to address today's problems in isolation from each other. The ESA is an example of how people have tried to conserve species without considering or addressing the many social and political ramifications. But social and political forces cannot be ignored because, as Alagona and others have pointed out, protected areas “will not survive without people inside them, using them in sensible ways, or outside them, respecting them and defending them” (Adams & Hulme 2001; Redford et al. 2006: 2). We need to better acknowledge the range of biophysical, human, and political elements that work simultaneously to drive change and inform decision making within particular contexts. Perhaps most important of all, Alagona reminds us that biological conservation is not a utopian end state. Rather, it is a characteristic of an evolving ecological, social, economic, political, and cultural system. Therefore, long-term sustainability can only be the result of an arrangement of laws, polices, and practices that continuously adapt to changing conditions (Holling 2001). If biodiversity conservation is to be successful, it is time for the protected-area paradigm to begin evolving in such a way that will allow it to catch up with and adapt to the ever-changing system it is a part of.