Micro-managing the ecosystem

By Craig Docksteader
web posted April 1999

I'll be honest - when I see the government of Canada concerned about the welfare of the snail population in Banff, I get concerned.

The snail -- called the Banff springs snail -- was first discovered in 1926. It wasn't until January 1996, however, that scientists began examining the status of the species more closely. When they found that it was missing in four of its historic locations, they were alarmed. By the following spring in 1997, the Banff springs snail had been hustled through the system and placed on Canada's national list of species at risk, alongside the grizzly bear, the burrowing owl and the harbour porpoise.

If you talk to someone who's really into this kind of stuff, they can be pretty convincing about the importance of looking after the snail. They'll tell you that endangered species are a 911 call from our ecosystem. It tells you something's wrong. One of the scientists who has been studying the snail since 1995 put it this way, "These tiny snails are equally integral to Banff National Park as the mighty grizzly bears. Just as a healthy population of grizzlies is used to indicate the health of the Canadian Rockies, a healthy population of Banff springs snails indicates the integrity of the unique hot spring ecosystems. It's all a matter of scale, and priority."

Make that a high priority. Banff National Park has already begun closing off human access to some of the areas inhabited by the snail. In addition, a resource management plan for the snail's recovery has been drafted for Parks Canada, involving science, communications, and - ominously - enforcement. Ongoing research is being carried out on the snail, along with a captive breeding program. Scientists are busy erecting signs and posters about the snail, doing media interviews, distributing fact sheets, brochures and even snail sculptures, in an attempt to raise awareness and sensitivity to the snail's plight.

But something doesn't seem to add up. While the snail disappeared from four locations, the five hotsprings it was found in are those which are frequently visited by people. Furthermore, after regular monitoring of the snail populations, scientists have found that their numbers fluctuate dramatically. Oddly enough, the numbers are lowest just before Banff experiences its major influx of visitors, not after.

At the risk of sounding uncaring and unenlightened, perhaps we need to re-think our approach. For starters, before embarking on a mission, someone should establish that a link between the population of a species and the health of the ecosystem actually exists. Even many hard-line environmental advocates are beginning to admit that the focus should be on protecting ecosystems, not specific species. If you ensure the health of the ecosystem, you'll protect the viability of thousands of species that live within it.

Secondly, if there is no evidence that clearly establishes a relationship between human activity and the welfare of a species, perhaps we should butt out. Otherwise, our conservation efforts may be closer to ecological meddling than environmental stewardship.

Thirdly, although it may not be politically correct to say so, we need to reevaluate our romantic view of endangered species. Edward Wilson, a renowned Harvard University entomologist noted that there may be something in the order of 100 million species on the planet, of which only about 1.4 million have been identified. It has been estimated that between 40 - 100 species go extinct every day, primarily as the natural course of nature. Is it possible that the endangered species crisis has been overstated?

Protecting legitimately endangered species is one thing, but bureaucratic micro-managing of the ecosystem is another. What we think is a 911 call may just be station identification. It wouldn't hurt to know the difference before panicking.

Craig Docksteader is Coordinator with the Prairie Centre/Centre for Prairie Agriculture, Inc.and can be reached at prairie.centre@sk.sympatico.ca

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