Wildlife biologist Neil Dawe says he wouldn't be surprised if the generation after him witnesses the extinction of humanity. All around him, even in a place as beautiful as the Little Qualicum River estuary, his office for 30 years as a biologist for the Canadian Wildlife Service, he sees the unravelling of the web of life. 'It's happening very quickly,' he says. Photo: Oceanside Star

By Brian Wilford 
29 August 2013

(Oceanside Star) – Wildlife biologist Neil Dawe says he wouldn't be surprised if the generation after him witnesses the extinction of humanity.

All around him, even in a place as beautiful as the Little Qualicum River estuary, his office for 30 years as a biologist for the Canadian Wildlife Service, he sees the unravelling of "the web of life."

"It's happening very quickly," he says.

A recent news report focussed on the precipitous decline of barn swallows on Vancouver Island.

That is certainly true, says Dawe, who starting in 1978 worked on the Royal BC Museum's four-volume Birds of British Columbia project, but it doesn't tell the whole story.

People will focus on the extinction of a species but not "the overall impact," he says. When habitat diversity is lost, "it changes the whole dynamic." In 1975, when Dawe was assigned to study the newly created Marshall-Stevenson Unit of the Qualicum National Wildlife Area, which is part of the Little Qualicum River estuary, there were 24 nesting pairs of blue-and-rust barn swallows in an old barn that still stands to this day after 125 years.

Registered Professional Biologist Neil Dawe has written over 80 papers on birds, ecology and the environment. He received Environment Canada's Regional Citation of Excellence Award for his work in co-founding and co-chairing the Brant Wildlife Festival. He received the Outstanding Service Award from the Federation of B.C. Naturalists and the Ian McTaggart-Cowan Award of Excellence in Biology from the Association of Professional Biologists of B.C. In 2006, he retired from the Canadian Wildlife Service, Environment Canada, after 31 years of managing National Wildlife Areas and Migratory Bird Sanctuaries on Vancouver Island. He is President of the Qualicum Institute: www.qualicuminstitute.ca.

The fork-tailed aerobatic wonders mate for life and year after year the couples, migrating from as far as South America, would return to the same nests in the old barn.

However, their numbers began to decline as the area was developed. The trees were logged and milled, parts of the estuary were mined for gravel, rock walls were built to stop erosion, and a straight channel, in use to this day, was dug so the river no longer wound through the estuary, shifting course with the seasons.

All that meant fewer insects and that meant weak and hungry barn swallows, now susceptible to the larvae of the blowfly.

One by one, the nesting pairs slipped away over decades, Dawe says. "When I left there were none."

There are still barn swallows in the area but there aren't as many: between 1966 and 2011, barn swallows in B.C. have declined at a rate of 4.96% a year.

They're among more 30 B.C. birds known to be in decline, including the iconic Great Blue Heron (1.7% per year), the Rufous Hummingbird (1.91%), the beautiful killdeer (3.8%), the American Goldfinch (4.85%) and so on. Forty-five of the 57 coastal waterbirds using the Strait of Georgia were in decline between 1999 and 2011, including the Brant sea goose (4.7% per year), Greater Yellowlegs (10.5%) and Western Grebe (16.4%).

But it isn't just birds. The inconspicuous Pacific crabapple, once a mainstay of the estuary, is all but gone. Dawe points to a scrawny metre-high specimen near a road. "I'd guess it's a hundred years old," he says.

The Douglas fir and Sitka spruce are all but gone. The life-giving grassy carex, as Dawe and fellow biologist Andy Stewart reported in 2010, is being stripped from the estuary by resident Canada geese at a rate of 15-18 metric tonnes a year.

"Most of these plants here now are invasive species," he says.

Indeed, in his 35 years of studying what is supposed to be a wildlife sanctuary, it has almost all changed, and it no longer supports the life it once did.

It looks green and serene but to Dawe, "It's a veritable desert here."

The loss to the food web is a loss to the web of life, he says, and people are a huge part of that web.

Indeed, it's an overabundance of people, perhaps by five-fold, which is driving resource extraction and consumption beyond a sustainable planet, he says.

"Economic growth is the biggest destroyer of the ecology," he says. "Those people who think you can have a growing economy and a healthy environment are wrong. "If we don't reduce our numbers, nature will do it for us."

He isn't hopeful humans will rise to the challenge and save themselves.

"Everything is worse and we're still doing the same things," he says. "Because ecosystems are so resilient, they don't exact immediate punishment on the stupid."

Web of life unravelling, wildlife biologist says


  1. Anonymous said...

    This is happening all over the world and is not unique to any one location or region, and includes the world's ocean life too.

    Humans think that short-term self-extinction is not possible, because they're insulated from all that is happening within the environment.

    I would argue that this very insulation is deceptive and precisely the reason why short-term extinction is VERY possible.

    In a world that only acknowledges and promotes growth, consumption, capitalism, material wealth and expansion, it's factually impossible to reconcile any of these destructive tendencies to "preservation" of life, or environment - including even our self-preservation. It's entirely contradictory.

    It will all come to an end, because it must. Nothing is infinite, not even Nature and the life it supports, including ours.

    The "argument" it seems, isn't "if", but "when". When does it stop? How much farther can humans push the environment for their own demands?

    Obviously (because that is what we are doing all over the world) - right to the bleeding edge, until it DOES collapse.

    There is nothing to stop this. I'm not going to bother listing the lip-service we've all seen.

    One species has built an entire civilization upon expansion and growth. This is fundamentally incompatible with a finite world and always has been. Collapse occurs when any civilization exceeds the environmental support capacity (read "Collapse of Complex Societies" - it's a common occurrence).

    We now know that we are in severe overshoot of resource consumption and population. Yet even this awareness and knowledge does nothing to slow any of it down. This fact alone demonstrates that we do NOT have the means to stop and will continue - until we can't.

    Modern societies do NOT self-regulate. They smack up against resources limits when thing run out, or get destroyed. They do not regulate themselves and limit themselves to only what they have. Just the opposite is true, they take all that they can, wherever then can, and however they can, until it is actually ALL gone, yet even more proof we WILL fail and collapse.

    Personally, I've spent most of my adult life wrestling with this issue and see no hope at all for humanities "future". The only real hope is collapse - sooner the better. Wipe out this species that is mucking everything up and forcibly reduce our numbers back to tolerable levels (just maybe, but doubtful). Except it quite possible and increasingly likely we won't survive the next collapse, we've done far, far too much damage now to the whole of the environment and the life within.

    No matter, it will happen anyway and any surviving humans will soon find out "who lives and who dies" and "what remains".

    I give our chances about 1:9 for survival. Not really any different then all the other mammal species on the planet which are being exterminated at 10,000 times the natural rate.


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