Can The Public Care Too Much?

The topic of today’s blog post has been rattling around in my head for a long time.  I’ve been hesitant to write about it because I don’t really have a strong stance, just lots of thoughts.  My motivation here is just to stimulate thoughtful conversation.

Let’s start here: I’m guessing most people become interested in conservation because of a love of animals.  For many of us, that love starts with having a childhood pet and/or from childhood stories/movies about animals.  Disney movies that give animals huge eyes, human voices, and relatable life stories, have been emotional touchstones for many millions of people.  By the time we’re out of elementary school, many of us feel a strong attachment to animals such as dogs, cats, deer, rabbits, squirrels, and many other animals we see around us.  It’s not hard to transfer that attachment to whales, penguins, jaguars, bison, pandas, and other animals we might not see in person, but that are large, charismatic, and look like they need us.

Mule deer. Nebraska Sandhills.

One of the main jobs of conservation educators is to help nurture and build upon that love of animals.  You like squirrels?  Well, squirrels need trees, and trees need forests, so you should also care about forests and other habitats that support the animals you love.  Whales need the ocean and bison need prairie.  Save the oceans!  Save the prairie!  It’s an effective strategy, and one that is critically important for building necessary support for conservation.

Here’s where it starts to get complicated.  For some people, that message of, “if you love animals, you should love habitats” sends them on a path of learning more about habitats and ecosystems.  They learn about the value of biological diversity and the complex contributions and interactions between all the various species in ecosystems.  Animals are still charismatic and loveable, but plants and fungi are also really important, and – as it turns out – captivating in their own right.  A love of animals becomes a passion for nature that is based on the intricacy of all the interacting organisms that make it work.  For some, that passion is linked to spirituality, while others are fascinated from a more scientific perspective. 

Other people, however, remain much more focused on animals, and feel an obligation to those fellow beings.  Every animal has its own personality and life story, and thus is important to nurture and protect.  We need to save oceans and prairies because destroying habitats destroys animals and that is ethically wrong.  Conserving nature becomes more about individual animals than about complex systems.  Some people with this perspective gravitate toward involvement with or support of wildlife rescue programs and Humane Society-type organizations.

(I want to pause here and state clearly that I’ve narrowly described two points on a broad spectrum of nature lovers and conservation supporters.  Please understand that I’m not trying to stereotype anyone or pass judgement.  I also recognize that most people have much more complex and broad perspectives on nature, animals, and conservation than what I just portrayed.  I’m only using these narrow descriptions to help make some upcoming points.)

Black-tailed jackrabbit. The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies.

There are a couple ways these disparate perspectives can have an impact on conservation.  The first is a simple matter of balancing time and effort.  Many people contribute many hours a year to conservation.  What is the most effective use of that time?  Nursing orphaned robins and squirrels (species that are thriving) until they can be successfully released?  Or clearing invasive brush from a prairie?  Clearing brush will have a stronger immediate impact on the world and will help species that are more imperiled than robins and squirrels.  However, it’s not that simple, is it?  First, not everyone can or wants to clear brush in their free time (or harvest seed for restoration projects, etc.).  Second, nursing an orphan squirrel might really strengthen someone’s commitment to conservation, leading to other actions, such as donating toward effective conservation groups and efforts.

A second impact of these two perspectives on conservation has to do with support of land management actions, and this is the one I really want to dive into.  In today’s world, most ecosystems require active management in order to keep them healthy.  That concept, alone, can be difficult for people to swallow, especially given the naïve but understandable idea that nature can somehow balance itself, even when broken up into small disjunct pieces and exposed to invasive species and other threats.  I’ve written enough on this topic before that I won’t dwell on it here.  However, even when people accept the idea that active management is important, management actions themselves can be controversial – especially if they can have an impact on animals.

Here are just a few examples:

  1. Fire is an important part of many ecosystems, and the use of prescribed fire helps maintain healthy forests and prairies.  Fire also kills and injures animals, and while those impacts can be minimized, they are not completely avoidable.  Is the death and/or injury of a few animals worth the broader benefits of preserving the health of the ecosystems they and many others depend upon?
  2. Trees are increasingly moving into prairie habitats, making those areas uninhabitable for many prairie species and enabling encroachment of other invasive species.  Increasing tree density is also degrading habitat in woodlands and savannas.  However, trees provide homes for many animals (particularly birds) that are more familiar to people than the prairie animals displaced by trees.  Thus, removing trees from prairies and thinning trees in woodlands and savannas has caused huge controversy in many sites around the country (I see you, Chicago).  Some of that controversy comes simply from a love of trees, but that emotion is also tied to squirrels, robins, and other animals that people envision in those trees.
  3. Deer overpopulation is a major issue in natural areas around the country.  White-tailed deer, in particular, have had population explosions over the last century, leading to the decimation of rare plant populations, general habitat degradation, and a high number of automobile collisions.  Many discussions about population control stall out because of public outrage that arises whenever the topic of culling deer is broached. 
Spadefoot toad. The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve.

Just about everything we do as land managers comes with a risk of killing or injuring animals.  That includes mowing, grazing, prescribed fire, tree removal, or just driving (or even walking) through our sites.  Every land manager I know is very cognizant of these potential impacts and works to minimize them.  At the same time, however, they are also looking at bigger picture issues such as habitat fragmentation and degradation and the wide-reaching impacts of those on entire populations and communities of animals.

All these topics are complex and nuanced.  Decisions about prescribed fire, tree removal, deer population control and other strategies need to be made within a context that examines all their potential ramifications.  It’s helpful to have voices expressing concern about the effects of those treatments on animals.  That prevents conservation from becoming a numbers game in which morality takes a back seat.  However, it’s not helpful if those voices lead to paralysis because they won’t accept any action that harms animals.

Black-tailed prairie dog. The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve.

For me, all this leads to a lot of questions.  If we continue to use cute wild animals to spark conservation support among the public, can we do it in a way that gives them a more realistic view of nature?  Is it important for people to recognize that very few cute wild animals – especially those low on the food chain – die of old age?  Are we too hesitant to talk about the number of animals that die in nature?  How do we keep people from loving nature so much they won’t let us take the actions that will protect it?

Again, I don’t have any answers to these questions. I’m not even sure they are important questions.  I write this because I’m curious to hear your thoughts and perspectives.  Thanks for any thoughtful feedback.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized by Chris Helzer. Bookmark the permalink.

About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

34 thoughts on “Can The Public Care Too Much?

  1. Good thinking. My Feedback? You set the table well, but then rushed the dessert. The most interesting value of this post of yours surely was the very end of it, and that you only briefly treated. Most who read you here come with extensive experience, and we so much wanted to see what you deeply feel might be the way to go, complex as that it. Thanks.

  2. This is a basic problem stemming from people thinking of wildlife as pets. Once that happens, you’re “slaughtering / murdering / being inhumane”, etc. if there’s a chance of anything dying as a direct result of an active ecosystem management strategy (e.g., deer hunting, prescribed burning, even the use of “those poinsonous chemicals” aka herbicide). More education is needed on the structure of ecosystems as being an interconnected series of cycles and species …. and that humans have knocked that structure out of balance, with human action needed to restore that balance.

    • Should ‘animal’ control groups eg when culling a deer herd etc, Label themselves as the “We are the PREDATORS” , implying that we are part of nature?
      Would that work? Anyone try that one?

  3. This won’t be very helpful because I think this inherently insoluble; a result of the dichotomy between rural and urban life. How can you develop a nuanced view of a world you are removed from? The flip side of that could be that those of us who grew up in the country are a bunch of cold hearted bastards. Sorry, but that’s the best I have.

  4. Thanks for sharing those thoughts. If only it was clearer to those whose focus is animal welfare that before there were land managers, fires still occurred and killed some animals. Loss of lives is inherent to the healthy functioning of any natural community – I wish that was easier for some to see.

  5. Thanks for the well-presented and nuanced approach, Chris. Your caveat about presenting a dichotomy is appreciated, but posing the dichotomy helped make your important points. As others have said, there may not be a “solution.” However, I do believe exposure to others’ perspectives, challenging our own, and putting them in context is ultimately helpful.

  6. I am happy if people care about wildlife at all in this “virtual” society. Those that truly care about wild things and wild places will generally back conservation action if it is explained in a manner that doesn’t outright offend them (I am thinking of professionals who dismiss sentimental attachment to individual animals as an “uneducated, childish” response). If we are honest that some animals will die, and we do feel bad about that, but we can’t save species x, y, or z without burning (or cutting, grazing, etc.), in my experience most people will at the least refrain from actively opposing management, and often get drawn into a deeper understanding of and support for habitat work. I think as a conservation community we have done a poor job of explaining how humans have been actively managing the land, especially with fire, for millennia, and how ecosystem stability, as we know those ecosystems, is very dependent on that human management.

  7. You raise very important issues here, ones without easy answers but also ones we absolutely have to think about. I am for some reason reminded of Loren Eiseley’s essay “The Star Thrower”.

  8. We at the Friends of the Namekagon Barrens Wildlife Area in Wisconsin have the same problem.
    The wood lilly is my favorite flower and only seen out on the Barrens, “No I have never seen that before, beautiful” is the usual reply.
    “Why did you burn down all the trees to make this place open?” is another.
    Sharp tail grouse ONLY grow in this open place.
    It is very challenging to educate the public to less than 1% remnant of the ‘old days’. We keep trying because there is a beauty there that is undeniable even to the Ignorant. This summer we are trying more Nature Walks to get people to see the beauty of the Barrens. (much like the prairies).
    “Can’t see the Prairie or Barrens because of those Trees!” Get people out to see the beauty. Nothing is more varied than on the prairies or barrens compared to a forest! But you also need to look Down on the Ground.

    • I LOVE this area. I think a challenge there is a real fear of runaway forest fires. It can get dried out so quickly in barrens landscapes. But it’s really the only way to effectively rejuvenate the landscape. Keep up the good work!

    • Mark – I spent the better part of a wonderful day once at the Namekagon Barrens. It is truly a special, sunny, florid place among all the dense, mostly second growth forest that surrounds it, supporting much richer flora and thus, associated fauna. Bravo for the Friends group’s support of the management of the site for its rich biological diversity.

  9. Very thought provoking article. I work with a small land conservancy in the Midwest who does land management in a broad push to keep ecosystems as native as we are able and therefore help native species (plants and animals) thrive. It is a serious struggle to educate the public on why burns (for example) are so instrumental even at the risk of some animal mortality. So much goes in to planning to try to do everything we can to prevent animal impacts – escape routes/areas, avoid nesting times, etc. but our job ultimately is to protect native ecosystems and rare species and it is tough when some in the public have a very Disney view of animals. It is a long-term, continuous educational process, for sure, but that is also part of our job. Side note: very much enjoy your blog. Thank you!

  10. I’ve been told the way agencies deal with the public perception of management actions in the Chicago area is to not talk about them. Admittedly, this helps keep down the number of death threats. However, it also makes people feel excluded from the democratic process when the management is occurring on public lands. It’s not just a public perception issue either. I couldn’t take my 11 year old when he was younger to workday because he would cry and say “Daddy, why did you cut down that tree (buckthorn)?”

  11. I think there are two things we can do. First, during the educational programming, show “before” and “after” pictures, then show them the site. Folks have short memories and forget what things used to look like and have pretty poor imaginations on what sites COULD look like after restoration. Overgrown buckthorn-infested forests are dark and have very little growing in them. Chicago wilderness advocates (see Somme Woods Community FB page e.g.) show very nice before and after pictures that stimulate the imagination for what a buckthorn filled oak grove CAN BE.

    Second, and related to the first, is that folks, young and old, should be encouraged to get involved in the management of natural areas. Not just “leave it to the professionals”. This gives them “skin in the game” and fosters an interest in seeing the outcome of their work. It helps build advocacy for the place as well.

    Third, I think perhaps better relational stories about how animals use landscapes through the seasons might help reduce anxiety about management. For example, deer (and many other animals) use cedar thickets for winter cover. However, they often bed down and hide their fawns in tall grass. If you only look at the fall and winter season, someone might question why you are removing cedars. But a wholistic understanding of how animals use habitat through the season illustrates why management can be used to help animals find the habitat they need in EVERY season.

    My two cents…

  12. I’ve been to paralysis. We took an urban deer herd from 206/mile to 30/mile. No one wanted to take the band-aid off and initiate the cull. We waited and waited, public opposition grew. Horrific public meetings and protests. Then it all melted away post cull. Not a peep from the public. Browse lines gone, prairies blooming again. As an agency, taking the hit sooner would have been better for the herd and the park. Everyone was scared to act. Urban environments and folks further removed from nature make wildlife management decisions complicated!

    • I’ve been in exactly this situation at an East Coast land trust. It was difficult to get over the initial hurdles (including a lawsuit that was dismissed), but once management started, public opposition just evaporated.

  13. Here at Shaw Nature Reserve and at other managed natural / semi-natural areas in Missouri, our neighbors and most visitors have become accustomed to the ideas of prescribed burning, and of reducing populations of aggressive tree species, such as Juniperus virginiana, in rocky xeric grasslands (“glades”). A harder sell for some people is our (albeit very judicious and focused) use of herbicides to control non-native invasive plant species. There is a general lack of awareness that the pounds-per-acre champions of pesticide use and abuse are the owners of the monocultural suburban lawn and “bug”-free houses. In this way, too, people have a poor understanding of the ecological workings of the environment. “Furry animals are cute, friendly, appreciate our company, and need our care”, and “all chemicals are unmitigated evils at any time and at any dosage or level of targeting” are two examples of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing when it comes to holistic, conscientious, experience- and science based natural area management.

  14. In a time where most information is coming from TVs and movies produced by people who all live in apartments flooded with 24 hour lights, I would sure love to find people who value things like moths and mosquitos.

    But listen to them scream about culling cute piggies from Hawaii because they grew up on Charlotte’s web, or removing that bee-oo-ti-full Japanese barberry ’cause it’s purty! This mentality is sweeping the world…the idea that we can have our sanitary little lives over here in the city with our cars, electronics, and little plastic packages of everything, and then drive for four hours to see a patch wilderness and tell ourselves we are in nature (while blasting our radios to our favorite tunes); but take no responsibility for why the park is a patch, with retirement communities of cookie cutter houses glowering over the tops of the trees, or that we did not have the heart to put our goldfish in the freezer when we were done with them, or complained about the mice when they return as a result of trying to do the right thing and plant native.

    There are huge difference between animal “rights” and animal welfare. Giving animals rights gives heavily funded groups like PETA the legal muscle to tell you that you are imprisoning your dog in your apartment and that you can’t have meat, milk, or eggs. Last time I looked, this group had more money than the whole national academy of the sciences! Animal welfare is a more subtle thing, and incorporates ideas like protecting an animal’s habitat and way of life, giving them the most humane care possible within reason and context (such as giving a hawk wiggling cute natural food). This is why I support legal rights for ecosystems and land parcels, but not rights for my cat. Neither has a voice. The cat’s right to sue is not going to save us (only allow extremists to haul me to court and subject me to social bludgeoning), but the loss of habitat I saw flying down the East Cost yesterday will, and we need to be able to put our foot down to protect what little is left in an informed way with the benefit of many-seasoned learners and teachers like you. Great topic.

  15. Thank you.. I was just wondering if my undeveloped Indiana woods required ANY management, or if God wouldn’t just continue to take care of it. I’m glad you care to think on such things, and grateful that you act with passion and expertise. Keep at it.

    • If you are interested in management recommendations, I suggest contacting a botanist from Illinois named Chris Benda. He does a lot of surveys and inventories throughout Illinois. If he isn’t writing land management plans himself, I’m sure he would know someone who would give you the best advice regarding your woods in Indiana.

  16. People connected only to wild animals is far better than people not connected to nature at all. If animal life is all that some people care about, that at least will lead them to be advocates for nature. We must also remember that humans occupy a great deal of former habitat. I live in a town in a western valley which I know is mule deer winter habitat — so I gladly donate my lawn and shrubs to foraging deer to replace the winter habitat that I have built my house upon.

    I agree that managing the entire ecosystem is more important than individual animal mortality, but it is also all too easy to think that we (whoever it might be) know best. All those years of western fire suppression were done in the name of saving the forest and its inhabitants — and now we know that the forest and its inhabitants did not really benefit. Not every habitat needs human intervention — some human neglect would actually help some habitats. So individual animals must only be sacrificed if we are sure of the efficacy of the “treatment.”

    You raise interesting points — but let’s use the interest of animal advocates to build entire ecosystems. Animals are, after all, at the top of the habitat food chain; habitats do exist primarily to feed animals.

    • On habitats existing to feed animals…I will have to turn that over in my mind, lol. Your points are well taken…the problem is that the animal rights people are not about environment at all, really…they are about changing (or controlling) human behaviour. Most people who support animal rights see animals only in terms of their cute pets without realizing that they are supporting an agenda that, followed to its logical moral end would make having a pet a moral “no-no”.

  17. Killing cute animals is tough for many people including me. I eat meat from animals I have no relationship with yet treat the wildlife in my yard as my pets. I understand the necessity of culling deer in my neighborhood but the thought of it horrifies me. This is my culture. If I had to depend on these animals for my food, if hunting were a part of my culture I would probably feel differently. There’s an Indigenous practise (or at least I’m pretty sure there is anyway) of thanking an animal they must kill. It gives me comfort. Maybe because it seems not a logical justification for killing but an acknowledgement of that animal’s value not just as a number or as food but as an equal life being.

  18. A concept that I find useful here is “What’s bad for an animal can be good for a species,” such as with overpopulated deer. Not exactly a fun one to teach to children, but it would probably help avoid a lot of the issues you described.

  19. Hey Chris,

    OK so first of all what are you talking about with Chicago? I’m trying to figure that out. I know that up at Ft. Sheridan which is north of Chicago they’re turning lots of open grassland into Savannah which is also valuable but there are some pretty endangered grassland birds that might be displaced because of it.

    You need to edit the sentence before your last paragraph you are missing a word.



    • Suzanne, I don’t know the current situation very well, but about 20 years ago, Chicago had a pretty public disagreement between people trying to restore prairie/savanna habitats by clearing invasive woody plants and people who saw the tree clearing as destructive and wrong. I think education has helped everyone understand the habitat benefits of that work now, but there were some ugly fights that included people being mad because they felt like some of the tree clearing was being done on the sly. That’s all I was referencing. Thanks for the editing catch.

  20. Hi Chris, some encouragement from this study, perhaps?
    “Nature for whom? How type of beneficiary influences the effectiveness of conservation outreach messages”

    “Our results suggest that highlighting humans as conservation beneficiaries may not most effectively generate social support for conservation. Messages advocating the protection of nonhuman nature for its own sake may produce the most consistently positive donation outcomes.”

    Perhaps a sign that we’re moving beyond the need for ‘cute and cuddly’ in messaging.

    Thanks for this post. It’s complicated in practice to balance the positive impacts of benign neglect and informed action (I fall back on considering whether the proposed human action is replacing the role of a predator or other ecosystem component that was removed through previous human action). I hope you keep thinking out loud about this issue!

  21. I wanted to comment on this when you first posted this but time ran away from me. #1 I understand the importance of prescribed fires. My father helped with some of the burning so I understood why it was important to Nebraska’s prairie. I have never understood why this wasn’t implemented in California, having lived there too. Every time i saw the very tragic fires highlighted on the news I couldn’t help but wonder if it couldn’t have all been avoided. #2 Unfortunately 10 million bison were killed in the Midwest region to make way for people. As a result you have trees where there should be no trees. It then takes man made intervention. Even I forget sometimes the importance of all the ecosystems and how the work together #3 Another education moment is culling deer. There is nothing more devastating than watching deer die from chronic wasting disease (CWD). There is a reason they call it Zombie Deer Disease. Lastly it’s not an easy job to teach people about the circle of life because now we are so far removed from it. Most of the population lives in a cement world of buildings and sidewalks. However I do believe that some are finally getting the gist of it and hopefully it’s not to late. It’s very hard to play God. Figuring out who or what to save and where to allocate our energy physically and financially is a big responsibility. I believe it’s better to do something than to do nothing. If some seem to focus on saving animals I still support them because at least their getting on the bandwagon. We need all the help we can get to save mother earth. It won’t be long until we have 24 million displaced and starving people because of climate change. It’s a subject that won’t stay quit for long.


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