Time: A Social Construct and Potential Hurdle to Wildlife Conservation

Photo by Janko Ferlic

We hear folks say all the time, “I have been doing it this way my whole life” or “it never used to be this way”. The concept of time, or rather the way humans perceive and remember the passage of time, is a fascinating sociological topic. People today can easily tell you what they remember the world was like for them when they were kids, or when their grandparents were growing up.

We recognize that a lot has changed for civilized humans in the last 150 years as technological development has allowed for human populations to continue to propagate. Rapid population growth has consequently shrunk our ability to share resources and enlarged our land use footprint. We have cell phones with satellite technology and computers that can do the work of a hundred people in a matter of seconds. We now see fifty years as only a halfway point in an average human lifespan, when a century ago many people would have been grateful to live to fifty. While most people are well aware that a lot of has changed in the last couple of centuries, it appears to be much more difficult to apply that awareness outside of our own memories.

Prior to European expansion onto the plains, grizzly bears, wolves, elk, bison, and many other species of wildlife roamed huge swaths of the North American continent. Over millions of years, these species evolved to live in the open prairies of North America, to find sustainability with each other and indigenous people for food, space, and survival. Then in a relatively short span of time, European settlers disrupted the equilibrium that had been in place for centuries. Westward settlement quickly upset the established balance and threw new weight into the mix. With time, knowledge and a steep learning curve, we are beginning to discover if it is possible to restore a balance or stability to North American ecosystems. This dynamic will never be the same as it once was, and people today contribute to the scales in ways we never had before. Does this mean that we will never be able to find a balance again?  Is there no longer enough room for bears, wolves, bison or elk in the world we now dominate?

Humans and wildlife can co-exist, and not only co-exist but that we can find a new paradigm that allows all wildlife to find their equilibrium again in our current ecological system. This will take some time, however in the grand scheme of things, very little time. Elk have already adapted to life as primarily a forest dwelling species. Similarly, grizzly bear and wolf populations in the lower 48 states have rebounded from almost non-existent numbers by taking re-establishing in remote forested landscapes. These mammals as species, and as individuals, continue to have their own steep learning curve to deal with, without having the benefit of remembering “how it used to be”, or a book to reference their previous history. They only have instinct and us to help guide them towards coexistence and thus survival. We as people have to remember that it took generations for them, and us, to evolve to the point we are at now.

We need to give wildlife a chance to adapt. The way it used to be for them, is not what we remember. In the progression of time, five, ten or even fifty years is not very long, but might be the time it takes for recovering species such as grizzly bears and wolves to find their place on the balance of scales that we have the power to manipulate.

By Sara Sylte

Sara Sylte works for the Wildlife Management Institute to support Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the USDA Forest Services and US Fish and Wildlife Service efforts to conserve grizzly bears.