Natalie Dawson Q&A

I’m really pleased to get back to the Q&A sessions and 2008 starts off with PhD candidate Natalie Dawson. As she admits, she’s not a jaguar biologist but her biological insights and opinions are interesting and well-worth reading. I thank Natalie for taking the time to answer my questions!

  1. Please tell us how you became involved in wildlife and wildlife conservation.

    I am currently finishing my PhD in conservation biology at the University of New Mexico. Like many biologists, my early-age experience out-of-doors gave me a curiosity and passion for wildlife and wilderness. I grew up in Michigan, a state rich in natural resources and in a family where getting outside was a top priority. From tracking white-tailed deer with my dad, to spending summers on the Great Lakes and on various backpacking trips with my family, I had many wildlife encounters, I learned a great appreciation for wildlife and the need for continued preservation of their habitats. In high school, my favorite subjects were the sciences, where it was considered a GOOD thing to ask lots of questions! In college I pursued a degree in biology. After a series of small jobs for different government organizations, I started a PhD program in biology and have been pursuing a career as a biologist ever since then.

  2. What are some of the past research projects you have taken part in? I completed mammal surveys as a contractor for the National Park Service, inventorying mammals across the national parks in Alaska. Prior to my graduate work, I worked as a member of a research team on grizzly bear ecology in the Absaroka mountains in Wyoming, and as a technician for the USFWS on lynx/wolf studies in Alaska. I did some work in Idaho on beaver reintroduction sites and sagebrush seedling survival in the desert. I worked as a researcher on a small wolf project in Michigan (my home state) to identify areas in the lower peninsula of the state for natural recolonization from northern wolf packs. I also have the opportunity to accompany other scientists in the field, and have had a chance to learn about the Mexican wolf recovery program and the Jaguar programs in the southwest.
  3. What is the topic of your PhD research?

    My dissertation research focuses on carnivore conservation on the Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska. I use genetic techniques (DNA) to look at ermine, marten, and black bear movements across the islands, as well as the effects of past glacial events and contemporary habitat conversion (logging) on island populations of these organisms. I primarily use hair snares (made from PVC pipes and sticky glue pads) to collect hair samples from these organisms, but also get some of my samples from local fishermen who may be trapping during the winter season. A portion of my project addresses the use of science in state and federal management plans, such as the Tongass Land Management Plan, which governs most of the land in southeast Alaska. We advocate a tight communication network between scientists and managers on the Tongass, to ensure that our research is available to managers and they can make the best use of science in their decisions. So, from all my work in science has come a key interest in understanding environmental policies, particularly those that govern public lands.

  4. Can you give a little detail about the jaguar resolution at the 2007 annual meeting of the Society of Mammalogists? Was there any controversy or was it pretty easily passed?

    We originally started with just the Mexican Wolf Recovery Resolution, but then decided that since the meetings were being held in Albuquerque, it was fitting to push two resolutions through, both dealing with high profile mammals in the southwest. We had additional support from the Center for Biological Diversity, who provided information for the basis for the resolutions and we thought it very important to advocate for the formation of a recovery plan for the jaguar, a U.S. endangered species. Part of our interest in drafting a jaguar resolution was to hopefully bring to light the issue of the border fence and the effects it would have on various mammal species, especially vagile mammals such as jaguars. With both resolutions, there was little debate about the substance of the resolutions, within the committee, most discussion took place over wording, semantics, and sentence construction. When it came to the final vote by the society, both resolutions passed without much discussion and unanimously.

  5. How do you explain the fact that the Society of Mammalogists (not exactly a sentimentally-motivated, Eastern conservation NGO) supports the designation of critical habitat for jaguars in the SW US while the US Fish and Wildlife Service refuses to do so?

    True, we are not necessarily motivated by sentiment. ASM represents over 4,000 members of the scientific community from all 50 states and over 60 countries. We are the oldest organization (since 1919) devoted completely to the study of mammals. We strongly support the conservation of wild mammals based on sound and accurate knowledge. ASM does have a history of activism in issues. For example, as outlined in Michael Robinson’s book, Predatory Bureaucracy, ASM was one of the first professional societies to publicly denounce the federal government’s predator control program, based on available scientific information. Back then, it was a HUGE step for a professional organization to stand up and say that the government was doing something wrong. It provided the founding principles that would later define a rift between science and policy, a rift that continues to this day. In the case of the Jaguar resolution, we as a society felt that the USFWS has an obligation by law, to provide a recovery plan for this endangered species and we also felt that the science available indicates that 1) there are jaguars in the southwest United States, enough to warrant additional protection measures, and 2) critical habitat for the species includes lands in both Mexico and the United States, which means that any border protection plans should take into account the species that will be affected by such barriers. The USFWS, unlike the American Society of Mammalogists, is an agency within the federal government, a “mission-driven” agency that is bound by politically appointed leaders to fill a political agenda. Their actions in many cases directly reflect the current administration’s priorities. The best available and accurate science may not be used in decisions that they make.

  6. Do you think that the jaguar in the US will survive without the resolution’s 3 recommendations (recovery plan, designate critical habitat for jaguars, and address issues related to dispersal of jaguars across the international border)?

    I am not a jaguar biologist, but as a scientist, and having worked on endangered species issues, I can say that without a recovery plan or the designation of critical habitat, a peripheral population such as the jaguars in the U.S. (peripheral to the populations in central Mexico) is extremely susceptible to extirpation. It is possible that a species can continue to exist without federal protection, but given that the population numbers are so low, and with the border fence, migration between Mexico and the United States may cease to exist, it is highly probable that the individuals that do live in the southwest US will not be able to survive. Jaguars, like all large predators, need extremely large territories for survival, and those habitats cannot be found in the U.S. alone. They need the ability to move across the border and utilize the large expanses of undeveloped land in northern Mexico.

  7. What is your opinion of the biological impact of the border fence?

    My opinion on the biological impact of the border fence is not a positive one! Studies show that jaguars use areas in Mexico and the United States frequently. They cross borders. Prairie dogs in the border region are another ill-fated species that will be affected by a border fence, or border wall. Plant seedling dispersal, often dependent upon mammalian carriers, may be affected by a border fence. Any time humans impose an unnatural barrier on a landscape, local flora and fauna do not typically respond well. Roads cause increases in mortality, pipelines disrupt migration patterns, and fences disrupt dispersal capabilities. It frustrates me that we can disrupt the natural landscape based on the declaration of “national security” and completely disregard environmental laws and regulations in the process. It seems a mute point to build a society with certain standards if those standards can be thrown out for certain reasons. I say this because in building the border fence, the US government has refused to abide by ANY environmental laws, nor have they agreed to complete Environmental Impact Statements for the individual border construction projects. Yet, they are disrupting fragile and endemic ecosystems such as wetlands and grassland deserts in order to build the fence. As a biologist, I do not look favorably on this project, I do not endorse the construction of a border fence, and I have not given up in being vocally against the border fence as an atrocity to both our values as Americans and my values as a scientist.

  8. Anything else you’d like to add?

    On January 17, 2008, the USFWS decided to abandon the plans to write a recovery plan for the jaguar in the southwest United States. ASM is aware of these events, and is taking action to follow through with our resolution to push the USFWS to construct a recovery plan for this biologically important species. In the documentation provided by the FWS, reasons for abandoning the recovery planning process include 1) the jaguar falls under the jurisdiction of another country (due to its limited population numbers in the U.S. and 2) the FWS claims the jaguar population in the United States will not benefit from a recovery plan. Both of these claims are false given that 1) the historic and current range of the jaguar includes the United States, making it an endangered species that warrants a recovery plan and 2) almost all species WITH recovery plans have benefited from those plans due to the designation of critical habitat and other actions carried out in the recovery plans. There is no reason to believe that jaguars will not also benefit from any such plan. It is highly probable that again, motivations by the USFWS to abandon its recovery planning process for the jaguar are not motivated by scientific information, as they claim, but rather, are motivated by political decisions to make sure that the Endangered Species Act does not interfere with plans to construct a border fence. If the jaguars had a recovery plan in place, building a border fence across their critical habitat would become highly challenging.

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