To keep certain species from extinction, conservationists resort to extreme measures: enclosing them in good habitats or excluding them from bad, hand-pollinating and artificially inseminating, captive breeding, predator-avoidance training, and conditioning predators to avoid the taste of toxic prey. Environmental journalist Elizabeth Kolbert has found the perfect name for the creatures that humans have almost eradicated and now must fight nonstop to keep alive: Stockholm species. These are species “completely dependent on their persecutors.”
The term comes from Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future, in which Kolbert surveys a range of ambitious scientific projects seeking to protect or restore ecosystems, species or atmospheres.
What Kolbert describes is a kind of triage against massive environmental damage: “not so much the control of nature as the control of the control of nature.” Attempts to make coral more resistant to warming ocean waters through labour intensive human propagation and hybridisation; massive engineering works to keep Asian carp from invading Lake Michigan by swimming up hydrological channels that had once been considered the height of human ingenuity; and, in what might be the most perfect chapter, the simulacrum of a waterhole built to save the Nevadan pupfish, a classic example of a Stockholm species.
The Devil’s Hole pupfish is believed to have the smallest range of any vertebrate. They live, breed and feed exclusively in a pool sixty feet long and 8 feet wide in the Ash Meadows Wildlife Refuge in Nye County, Nevada. The pool, which descends 500 meters under the desert at its deep end, is the portal to an immense underground aquifer. But these tiny, dazzling blue fish spawn and find most of their food on a single shallow limestone ledge.
The pupfish’s cataclysmic evolutionary turn began with the arrival of alfalfa farmer Frank Cappaert in 1968. He bought up five thousand well-drilled acres above the aquifer. As Cappaert’s farm guzzled the water in the aquifer and threatened water coverage of the shelf, Devil’s Hole pupfish populations plummeted. Without intervention, the Devil’s Hole pupfish will go the way of the Las Vegas dace and Pahranagat spinedace, the Ash Meadows and Raycraft Ranch poolfish, and the Tecopa pupfish—all desert fishes that have already gone extinct.
State conservation agencies have been engaged in a decades-long battle to save the fish. At the end of the 1970s, attempts were made to create “refuge populations” in aquariums managed by ichthyologists. All failed. In 2006, National Park Service officers started delivering “supplemental meals” of pupfish prey to the pool. The site itself is highly protected, and drunken revellers who recklessly plunged into the pool have been given jail time. By 2013, the annual population surveys yielded a shocking result: there were only 35 adult pupfish left.
Thus began perhaps the most fascinating Stockholm intervention to date: a concrete replica of the actual pool, built at a cost of $4.5 million. “A kind of fishy Westworld has been constructed,” Kolbert says.
“Since the pool at Devil’s Hole is almost always in shade, the duplicate has a louvered ceiling that’s opened and closed according to the season. Since the water temperature in the cavern is a constant 93°F, there’s a backup heating system for the simulation. There’s the same shallow shelf, in this case made out of Styrofoam coated with fiberglass, with the same contours.”
After furious wrangling, the Park Service allowed pupfish eggs to be collected and reared for the simulacrum, off-season, from the tiny remnant population in the real pool. In the simulacrum, the newly hatched refugees found an entire food chain imported for their delectation: bright-green algae, spring snails, tiny crustaceans, some species of beetle. The tank is continuously monitored for Ph and temperature, and staff are on 24-hour call. Constant threat-mitigation involves setting traps for the tiny beetle that adapted a little too well to the conditions in the fake tank and began to attack pupfish eggs. Each day the staff spends hours sifting through the contents of the trap, removing the tiny bugs with tweezers. At the fake Devil’s Hole, Kolbert says, “I was struck, and not for the first time, by how much easier it is to ruin an ecosystem than to run one.”
When she visited the facility there were four full-time staff, and six years in, it held fifty fish: “Depending on how you look at things, this is a lot of pupfish—fifteen more than the total population on earth in 2013—or not very many.”
(Remember the worst conservation metaphor in the world? Well, Kolbert calculates that the entire population of pupfish in the real Devil’s Hole weighs less than 100g. Pupfish are not helping tilt that scale.)
Kolbert is the master of the implicit question: Is it worth it? Or, What doesn’t happen, so that this does? Or, How long can this go on? To be clear, I don’t find myself asking if it’s financially “worth it.” I’m not interested in improving the prospects for alfalfa farming. I am firmly on Team Pupfish. But the sense of looming trade-offs is inescapable. The losses are already vast, and they have begun to trigger yet more losses. We can’t save it all. So how do we decide what to save?
For decades, conservation debates have spiraled around the question of competing values. Ecocentrism vs anthropocentrism; “wise use” vs commercial bans; human livelihoods vs species preservation; ‘charismatic megafauna’ vs scaly, less marketable creatures. These debates are still relevant. Today there is a greater pressure to focus on habitat protection, and stronger criticism of campaigns anointing one species for salvation. Somewhere in between, conservationists moot ‘umbrella species’, ‘keystone species’, and ‘apex predators’ as justifiable targets, whose survival either allows them to create the conditions for the survival of other species, or is itself only possible if the food chain it relies on retains its integrity, each link a species whose own fate is connected to many others.
But as Susan Sontag said, the most interesting answers destroy the question. Debates like “Do we promote ecosystem conservation, or do we save single species?” look increasingly like cultural practices from a more innocent time. In the world we inhabit now, there is no way of returning a landscape to a state that is not anthropogenically altered. Can a rebounded pupfish population simply be returned to Devil’s Hole and left to its own devices? Replenishing an aquifer can take centuries, and the rest of the pupfish’s environment—air temperature, rainfall patterns, prospects for prey and predators—is also changing.
More than just the inevitability of change and loss, what the issue of “Stockholm species” brings into focus is the burden of assuming control. When conservation interventions are not just extreme, but perpetual, then each investment in time and resources grows heavier to bear. As the hard choices multiply, we are heading towards an angry politics of triage, and a chronic pathological condition: the neurosis of constant intervention.
Who would the protagonists of that condition be? The old narrative structures are a poor fit for this new territory, leagues away from the “preservation ethic” that established many of the world’s oldest national parks, and well beyond the animating debates of the current conservation movement. It strikes me that, not for the first time, humans who want to protect the natural world are faced with a narrative absence, a plot without characters. We will need a better way to understand our role: something more instructive than “repentant persecutor,” and more honest than “conserver.”