Sunday, March 20, 2005

Social Security for Condors?

So there's some planning afoot to reintroduce condors (the giant birds) to the Pacific Northwest, as well as to the southwest USA. This plan is unlikely to be successful however. Hunters don't want to upgrade their lead shot to titanium or some such, meaning wounded game that gets away and dies alone only serves to poison these carrion feeders.

Another killer is the poison used against coyotes and such (assurances to the contrary notwithstanding). The mortality rate for reintroduced condors is still way too high, thanks to people not taking significant steps to reduce the factors leading to their near total extinction in the first place.

One of the worst things to happen to condors was Sandy Wilbur, author of a self-congratulatory book about his days overseeing their welfare. On Wilbur's watch, the condor population plummeted, in large degree because he thought their reproductivity was the problem, not their morbidity (two factors account for die-offs: failure to breed; failure to survive).

Finally, Wilbur was given the boot, and his successor, a far more competent field biologist, established the true causes of the condor die-off. Low reproductivity had nothing to do with it.

On another front, government bureaucrats overseeing the salmon runs are hell bent on relocating the Caspian tern population at the mouth of the Columbia River, which picks off a percentage of the salmon.

Field biologists have data indicating that this policy doesn't address the real threats to salmon, but it's much easier to scapegoat the terns, to make their relocation the centerpiece of a bogus "solution," than it is to take more serious measures. Or, if the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers does have a credible model of how tern relocation is the answer, then let's see their data.

Intelligent public policymaking depends on making relevant data freely accessible. Science thrives on data. Politics all too often thrives on a lack of data.

When science is safely disposed of, the playing field gets monopolized by self-interested opinion-makers and the winning strategy is to grease the wheels and make the right friends. The public suffers and democracy becomes shallow and farcical. Propagandists have a field day cranking out a shoddy product. The real work of designing a sustainable ecosystem for the longer term doesn't get done.

Science, which harvests and feeds on data, and democracy, which channels data to a concerned and informed public, are natural allies. Politics-as-usual, on the other hand, often works to snuff out democracy whenever possible.

As a political system, democracy is inevitably subversive. We defend democracy by undermining the positions of those who would make policy in a vacuum, in willful ignorance of the relevant data.