Michelle Nijhuis Delivers Lecture: “Finding Hope in Conservation History”

By Anna Bruce ’21

Michelle NijhuisOn Tuesday April 13, the Center for Environmental Studies welcomed Michelle Nijhuis for a Class of 1966 Zoom lecture entitled “Finding Hope in Conservation History.” Nijhuis is the author of the new book Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction. A project editor for The Atlantic and a longtime contributing editor for High Country News, she writes about science and the environment for National Geographic and other publications. After 15 years off the electrical grid in rural Colorado, she and her family now live in White Salmon, Washington.

Nijhuis’ lecture sought to answer the question, why should we choose to protect certain species and how should we protect these species? This question has driven the research behind her recent book Beloved Beasts, which seeks to trace the stories and history of the conservation movement. Media coverage of the conservation movement often focuses on extinction, but rarely offers opportunities for readers to become involved and actually do something to mitigate such extinctions. She explained how conservation is about more than just preventing extinction, but rather about protecting relationships among species, their habitats, other species, and humans.

Nijhuis highlighted the stories of several people involved in the history of the conservation movement, beginning with William Hornaday, who worked to preserve the diminishing bison population of the late nineteenth century. Hornaday raised a herd of bison at the Bronx Zoo that would eventually be shipped to Oklahoma and spark a slow resurgence in bison population, the effects of which are still seen today. Yet, his involvement in the movement as a trophy hunter and taxidermist perpetuated the narrative of bison hunting and its association with nationalism and masculinity. During Hornaday’s lifetime, the bison conservation community was not concerned with the well-being of Native Americans who were disproportionately affected by dwindling bison populations. However today, indigenous communities seed herds with Hornaday bison on Native lands with a goal to bring bison back to the prairie ecosystem. This holistic approach recognizes the significance of ecological and cultural conservation as a powerful tool.

Nijhuis also spoke about how in the late 1800s conservationists focused on dwindling bird populations, as naturalists were shooting birds in large numbers in order to study them. This changed when Florence Bailey’s book Birds Through an Opera Glass helped to popularize birding with binoculars as a pastime. Around this time there was also a fashion craze for feathered hats, which led to the killing of over five million birds per year. Bird populations were able to bounce back when, with the help of conservation activists, Congress passed the Migratory Bird Act in 1918 and the U.K. Parliament passed the Plumage Prohibition Act in 1921.

Another important figure in the conservation of birds was Rosalie Edge, an avid birder, who went to the Audubon Society in 1929 to advocate for the protection of birds of prey. Ahead of her time, she argued that each bird was a “link in a living chain” and part of a greater ecosystem, and the Audubon Society eventually began to protect birds of prey. Edge then created the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary and asked that data on hawk and eagle migration numbers start being recorded. This record of migratory patterns would be used later to help show the harmful effects of DDT on ecosystems in Rachel Carson’s work.

So, where is the hope?

Nijhuis ended her lecture by remarking that working to uphold the conservation work and land rights of indigenous peoples is an area where conservationists can provide more support. However, there has in fact been progress in the conservation movement as the narrative has moved from protecting single species from extinction to increasing awareness of protecting more species and using information from ecology and conservation biology to know what species need to survive and what links ecosystems together into a larger web.