An Ecosystem Approach

I have been writing about red squirrels and thinking about wolves.

My topic is reintroduction, and given that I’m living on the edge of Yellowstone National Park, it’s impossible to consider that topic without thinking about wolves. Even though I’m writing about the translocation of a cute, ear-tufted rodent into the Scottish Highlands, the questions and issues are not altogether different from those related to reintroducing a large, iconic predator into Yellowstone.

As part of my project with the Coigach-Assynt Living Landscape organization (see April 7th blog), I am summarizing the possible alternative actions for red squirrel reintroduction into the Coigach-Assynt region of the northwest Highlands of Scotland. Alternative One is the No Action alternative. Alternative Two is to move forward with the translocation of red squirrels in a traditional style of single species reintroduction.

Alternative Three is where I start to get excited about possibilities. This alternative focuses on creating and fostering landscape connectivity to allow red squirrels to migrate into the region on their own.

Looking over the hill towards Letters from Dundonnell

Looking over the hill towards Letters from Dundonnell

Before considering this alternative, it’s important to note that the dispersal capabilities of a red squirrel have proved rather stunning. In 2008-2009, 44 red squirrels were successfully reintroduced into the Dundonnell Estate, approximately 40km as the crow flies from the heart of the Coigach-Assynt region. Within months of the animals’ release, one of the reintroduced squirrels had moved 16km away from Dundonnell, a move that included a 4 km hike over a treeless mountain to the small community of Letters, where the squirrel was spotted before he moved on to reach his final destination – another 12 km around the edge of a sea loch. In subsequent years, three other squirrels also made the mountain trek to Letters, where it appears a population is now established.

One can only imagine what drives a squirrel to leave the kind of forests growing in Dundonnell – mature conifers full of cones, plenty of habitat, lots of nesting space – and bound several kilometers to a previously unknown destination, climbing up and down some 400m of elevation through the treeless moors and rocks. And the hardy male that continued on, reaching his distant resting point far from other squirrels? He earned his reward: a female was brought to the garden where he had taken up residence. Success. Red squirrels have spread from that point as well.

If red squirrels can move like that, it seems altogether reasonable that they could make it further north. It might take generations of squirrels, and decades of colonization before they get to northern Assynt. It will take creating, fostering, and maintaining a landscape with the stepping-stones, corridors, and connectivity to allow for dispersal, something that will benefit more than red squirrels. It will also require collaboration, cooperation, and interaction with the human communities that exist in that landscape. And so I turn to Alternative Four, the Ecosystem Approach.

In 1995, the Convention on Biological Diversity (which came into being at the United Nations first Earth Summit in 1992) recognized that a holistic approach to biodiversity management is required. Consequently, the CBD adopted the Ecosystem Approach as a framework for biodiversity conservation and management, an approach that incorporates sustainable resource use and development – it includes human communities and human needs. The Ecosystem Approach might be a management tool to help meet increasing threats to biodiversity and ecosystems while balancing ecological and socio-economic needs. See the CBD website for more details.

The Ecosystem Approach provides the strategic context for the Living Landscape group I worked with in Scotland. Choosing to apply this approach for red squirrels would mean creating a functional ecosystem with habitat connectivity that supports both wildlife and rural communities, allowing movement of wildlife through the region: red squirrels might just bound kilometer by kilometer – generation through generation – northward, and end up in Assynt. The approach would be advantageous for many species – the human species as well.

It’s interesting to consider that in 1995, even as the CBD adopted the Ecosystem Approach, wolves were released into Yellowstone Park, the beginning of the wolf reintroduction. The timing seems serendipitous.

Conservation and biodiversity management has moved into an era when “People” are now part of the equation. Reserves and parks remain a necessity, serving as strongholds for numerous species. Yet, without expanding management and conservation efforts beyond preserve boundaries, all that is left are islands, isolated and fragile in the face of ecosystem dynamics and climate change. And no wolf, bear, or even red squirrel is going to recognize the invisible boundaries of those preserves. They will cross the line. An Ecosystem Approach is becoming a necessity – especially for large predators like the wolf, who were put into Yellowstone at the very moment the CBD formalized a strategy to meet that need.

So I am writing about squirrels and thinking about wolves. I have suggested four Alternatives for red squirrel reintroduction that could be extrapolated to other biodiversity issues. Looking beyond the scale of the squirrel project, the No Action Alternative seems irresponsible in the face of biodiversity threats. Action is needed.

There is a red squirrel population in the Scottish Highlands whose future rests on human decisions. The fate of many species depends upon our Preferred Alternatives. What choices will we make?

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