I spent Saturday on the beach, snapping photos of terns while they dive-bombed the intrepid Indu Nepal as she risked her head (literally!) for video footage of piping plovers. Our guide was Don Riepe, who after a 25-year career as a park ranger heads the Northeast chapter of the American Littoral Society and leads a variety of birding and ecology tours around New York, in conjunction with NYC Audubon (for more info, click here).
At the end of a long and well-spent afternoon in the sunshine on Breezy Point, we accompanied Riepe back to his house, a cozy cottage filled with ocean memorabilia with a deck extending out over Jamaica Bay. As he fed bits of bread to the gulls wheeling across the dusky sky, Riepe said something that caught my attention: That despite the unquestionable success of piping plover recovery efforts (for more on that, check out our next issue--and the video footage on the web), the birds "may have to be managed forever."
And I wondered: When a species' survival depends on constant human management, does that species cease to be wildlife? And is that the fate of all wildlife--and wilderness--in the face of continued human population growth?
To see the plover in action--its tiny, fuzzy body; its speedy legs; the "foot tremble" it uses to shake out invertebrate goodies from the sand; its signature "Peep. Peep. Peep," each chirp a singular declaration--is to love it. If it takes management to keep the plover alive, I'm all for it. Still, the beach is something else: Fencing delineates nesting grounds, and the plovers are endowed with elaborate cages in which to raise their young. People have free rein of the beach itself but are confined to fence-lined boardwalks when they pass through the grassy nesting grounds on the way back to their cabanas, and even despite flagged "symbolic fencing" over the boardwalk, terns screech and dive (as Indu can attest) to protect their nests.
A flock of sanderlings at Breezy Point. / Photo by Alexa Schirtzinger
For the non-birder (the only other people on the beach with binoculars were watching a ponderous cruise ship steam out to sea), I can see how the whole setup would be annoying. (And I must admit, I did wonder about the costs involved.) Since plovers are so hard to see, says Riepe, it's common that people don't even know what they look like--and what the point of all that fencing is.
And as soon as I started thinking about this non-wild wildlife phenomenon, it started cropping up everywhere: The wolves in the West, forever straddling Endangered Species status; the discomforting glut of once-majestic wild horses held in detention-like corral camps by the BLM; the roving gangs of monkeys in New Delhi...and the precious little plover. What's to be done? In the inevitable collision of "wild"life with human life (and, I might add, we can be a bit wild, ourselves), who wins out? And when wildlife ceases to be wild, is it still worth conserving?
Gulls, from Riepe's deck in Queens. / Photo by Indu Nepal