Steve Haycox: Alaskans shouldn't fall for the myth of superabundance

Steve Haycox

A new book formally published this week has already attracted considerable critical attention nationally. Joel Greenberg's "A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction" (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014) tells the extraordinary story of the reduction of a natural species of wildlife from billions to nothing is just a few decades of the 19th century.

Passenger pigeons, not to be confused with the chubby, waddly rock pigeons of today's urban parks, once flew around North America in aggregations whose size is impossible to picture. A larger, more slender bird than the rock pigeon, with a long tapering tail, they flew in hordes of billions, literally. When they passed over a region they often blotted out the sun, and might take three days to pass entirely. They fed on nuts, and when they landed in hickory trees or even oaks, they were so many that the limbs broke under their weight, and sometimes whole trees toppled. They were at once a fearsome but fortuitous occurrence, a happening, for while farmers cursed them for the damage they did to their fields, they also had a grand time shooting them, or capturing them in nets, or sometimes simply knocking them out of the air with long poles. They were good eating, especially as pigeon pot pie.

Often thousands were left to rot after a kill because there was no use for all that could be slaughtered at any one time, at least until the telegraph and the railroad. The telegraph allowed would-be harvesters to follow the birds' movements, and the railroad facilitated quick travel to the sightings, and after a major kill, easy shipment of the birds to urban markets; their sale was highly profitable.

John James Audubon saw one of the masses that took three days to pass in 1813. In 1839 Henry David Thoreau noted their presence in New England in his small book on two weeks on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. But James Fennimore Cooper gave an indelible if fictional account of a passenger pigeon kill in his semi-autobiographical novel "The Pioneers," published in 1823.

A great multitude of the birds passed over the fields of settlers who had pioneered new country. The settlers were wanton in their destruction of the birds, many thousands left to die and rot on the ground, unused. A witness to the carnage, the backwoodsman Natty Bumppo, complained to the land developer, and tried to stop the butchery. He could not condone the "wasty ways" of the settlers, who would kill so many just for the sport of it. The settlers argued that their slaughter could make hardly a dent in the huge number of birds. Bumppo replied that the birds have a dignity of their own simply by their existence, and to kill more than were needed for food was sinful. The settlers' argument is called the myth of superabundance.

By the end of the century technology and demographics had done their work. Settlement had spread across the continent, and the last passenger pigeon died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.

When, prompted by concern about declining game in Alaska, Congress established the Alaska Game Commission in 1925 to regulate the taking of brown bears, Dall sheep and other threatened species, Alaska officials and citizens complained noisily that their "God-given and time-honored" right to take game was being denied them by "Washington, D.C., bureaucrats who know nothing of the true conditions in Alaska." And the Alaskans, too, invoked superabundance. Historians have credited strict enforcement of Game Commission regulations with stabilizing Alaska's big game populations.

Last year marked the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act, a widely popularly supported response to the myth of superabundance. Today, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, pursuant to requirements of the ESA, lists the humpback whale, blue whale, right whale, short-tailed albatross and Eskimo curlew as endangered. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also includes the western Steller sea lion, leatherback sea turtle, Cook Inlet beluga, bowhead whale and sperm whale as endangered, and the speckled eider, Steller eider and the northern sea otter as threatened.

Should we not be grateful for a force that can save us from wasty ways?

Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Steve Haycox