Despite famous successes like bald eagles that have come back from the brink of extinction, we still tend to think of troubled species as suffering something like stage IV cancer — if not an outright death sentence, then it’s at least an extremely tough path forward both for the species and for any human activities in their proximity.
Steller sea lions are a good example of a more hopeful outcome, but one that still has many ramifications for people. Washington state wildlife managers said last week they want public comments about taking them off the state’s threatened species list. This will almost certainly lead to them being de-listed in Washington state waters. They were taken off the federal Endangered Species List in December 2013 after the population from Southeast Alaska to Northern California grew from 18,000 in 1979 to about 70,000 in 2010. They will, however, still be considered a threatened species in Oregon, at least for now.
Although many coastal people have mixed feelings about Stellers — they compete with us for white sturgeon and some salmon runs — their recovery is a noteworthy milestone. A listing as a threatened or endangered species really can be a meaningful intervention in the survival of animals and plants that began playing roles in the environment eons before humans were here.
Finding smart ways to aid and accommodate wild animals will become increasingly necessary as this century moves forward. Not only will alterations in the climate make it more difficult for species to depend on historic ranges and food sources, but a migrating and expanding human population will inevitably create even more conflicts with wildlife. Dealing with this will not only take technical expertise on the part of biologists, but political sophistication on the part of agencies.
In the case of Steller and California sea lions, recovery is not only gratifying, but also an ongoing irritant. Still highly protected regardless of their healthy population, sea lions make for problematic neighbors. Keeping them robustly healthy while avoiding a dangerous level of human animosity will require a level of nuanced managerial skill that is only rarely in evidence.
We face incredible challenges in the decades to come. Helping nature confront the problems we’re causing will be one of the greatest moral, ethical and technical hurdles of our age. Sea lion restoration hints that we’re up to the task.