Commentary: Saving our species

Sep 28, 2012

Here’s a little episode in Michigan history that you probably don’t know, and about which we have reason to be ashamed.

If you could take a time machine back to Petoskey in the spring 1878, you would have seen a stunning sight. An immense flock of passenger pigeons descended from the skies to form the world’s largest recorded wild pigeon roost.

Millions of pigeons landed and completely filled up an area 40 miles long by more than three miles wide. These were substantial birds, about twice the size of a mourning dove, and beautiful ones. They were slate blue with reddish-brown breasts and brilliant orange eyes.

The birds converged on Michigan, and thousands of hunters converged on Petoskey. They blasted them with shotguns; caught them in nets, salted them down, and shipped their bodies to market or used them for fertilizer. What game laws Michigan had were unenforced and ignored. Hundreds of millions of birds died.

When the slaughter was over, the species had been all but destroyed. The pigeons were totally extinct in the wild within 20 years. The last specimen ever soon died in the Cincinnati zoo.

The wanton extinction of what had been America’s most abundant bird, together with the near-extinction of the buffalo, had a sobering effect, and helped make us serious about protecting endangered species. Until now.

Senator Tom Casperson of Escanaba wants to take away the state Department of Natural Resources’ ability to set aside land to make sure that biodiversity is preserved. Casperson wants to remove the DNR’s ability to protect endangered species.

The bill he has introduced wants instead to have the agency “balance its management activities with economic values.“

It would even remove the words “unusual flora and fauna” from the definition of “natural area.“ If you think that sounds like a parody, he is totally serious. As Rebecca Williams of the Environment Report told listeners, one retired University of Michigan professor of natural resources said this bill was “counterproductive, mean-spirited, lacking in common sense … couldn’t be worse.”

Casperson, who owns a log trucking business, may not know the story of the passenger pigeon. He hasn’t attended college, and told me once on this station that he thought the founding fathers came to Washington to write the Constitution in the Capitol building. He thinks the state owns too much land.

He wants more logging in state forests and has pushed to make it easier for people to build in coastal sand dunes. What’s most worrisome is that he is not alone. While his bill is still in committee, it has some support among this fellow Republicans.

Casperson has long been a foe of the DNR. Earlier this year, he successfully pushed through a bill to restrict future land purchases by the department. Governor Rick Snyder, who is widely regarded as environmentally friendly, signed that one.

Hopefully, Snyder will view this bill differently if it ever reaches his desk. When I was growing up, we were taught that our society had moved past the era of wanton environmental destruction.

I would like to think that one major species extinction was more than enough shameful legacy for our state to bear.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.