Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack

Back when I was working on my doctorate, which focused on the nexus of environmental security and national security, I learned about the unarmored three-spined stickleback fish. It seems this fish was once abundant in coastal California’s geologic past. But when humans and industry showed up, the tiny fish found its habitat increasingly taken over by homes and businesses and such. By the time the late 1990s arrived and I was doing my research, the little fellas were only found in a single creek located on the grounds of Vandenberg Air Force Base, now (sigh…) known as Vandenberg Space Force Base. 

At one point, there was a plan to build a new bridge that would have improved access between the north and south launch areas of Vandenberg, but the bridge construction would likely have resulted in the extinction of the aforementioned unarmored three-spined stickleback. As a result, the Air Force did not build the bridge, and the little fishes are, to this day, swimming in pacific bliss in their now-protected habitat. 

I thought of those critters when I read a recent Colorado Politics story about a debate going on regarding a dozen bison that currently live in the Grand Canyon National Park. The Park Service, tasked with managing the size of the herd, had decided there are too many bison for the park to safely support and therefore has set up what they call a “hunt,” albeit a highly controlled and regulated hunt, to eliminate 12 of those magnificent animals, for the good of the range land.

But there is opposition to the hunt. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis and Colorado House Member Joe Neguse don’t like the idea of these symbols of the west being killed. They propose, instead, to bring those dozen critters to Colorado, where they can join an existing herd in Bent County. 

Happily, and unlike just about every other column I’ve written, this particular issue seems to fall entirely within the Democratic Party. We have a Dem administration taking an action that a couple of Dems oppose. That just feels so refreshing for some reason. I don’t have to talk about Trump or Trumpism, which is really a nice break.

Also, it appears that everyone’s motives are pure: they all want what’s best for the bison (note to self: “Best for the Bison” would be a good name for a band).

Now, my position here might surprise you, if you think of me as a lefty tree hugger. I kind of support the hunt.

Having had the wonderful experience of spending my youthful summers on my grandparents' Iowa farm, I learned hard lessons about animals in the greater scheme of things. Were bison endangered, I’d think differently. Just a couple centuries back we as humans were, in fact, doing our best to wipe out the species. We nearly succeeded. Once numbering in the millions, by 1900 they numbered fewer than 600. Happily, through the hard work of many dedicated people, the bison population has bounced back, both in terms of the roughly 30,000 that are truly wild and in un-fenced areas, and in total population. Current estimates suggest we have about a half million bison in the US today. Heck, when I used to drive out to Tango Launch Control Center, back when I was an Air Force “finger on the button” guy out of FE Warren in Cheyenne, we used to pass a farm with hundreds of bison being raised.

And so, I can’t help but wonder a bit if folks aren’t overreacting a tad over the fate of these dozen animals. We tend to want to support the cuter and more magnificent types of animals. As a result, we may be too over the top on stuff that looks cuddly or majestic, while ignoring the ugly. There are exceptions, of course, but there is actually a body of literature that examines our tendency as humans to support the cute. There are exceptions — some animals are so ugly they get a sort of cult status, such as the blob fish. Go ahead, google it. It’s not attractive. 

But far too often, especially creepy-crawlies like spiders and such, are seen as repellent, and our human nature is not to support them when they become endangered. Yet spiders and similar critters are vital to our ecosystem.

All things being equal, it is perfectly fine to ship the dozen bison from Arizona to Colorado. They will bring biodiversity to the gene pool, and they will be wonderful additions to the existing herd. But if shipping these 12 animals pulls money away from other species that are more threatened and more at risk of extinction (but are not nearly as cute or magnificent) we may be doing Mother Nature a disservice. 

Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

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