Tenacious Beasts

  • By Christopher J. Preston
  • The MIT Press
  • 328 pp.
  • Reviewed by Elizabeth McGowan
  • March 23, 2024

What humans owe the creatures we dominate.

Tenacious Beasts

Bison on the Great Plains. Bears in Italy’s mountains. Salmon along the Northwest Pacific Coast. Humpback whales off Norway. A surprising number of creatures great and small are bouncing back from the brink of extinction despite the messes humans continue to burden them with on this planet we allegedly share. Christopher J. Preston delves deeply into a dozen or so of their heartening stories by talking to the researchers, activists, and optimists investing time and energy in these hands-on healing endeavors.

While each tale is uplifting, the author of Tenacious Beasts neither minimizes how arduous and exasperating such undertakings can be nor provides false reassurances about rapid resurgences. The essence of Preston’s literary pursuit is captured in his chapter on river restorations and the complexities of balancing cleanups, dam removals, and fish hatcheries. “The question is this,” he asks on page 99. “Can humanity reign (sic) in its insatiable desire to engineer the flow of water?”

Despite mistaking reign for rein (dang homophones!), he is posing the correct, and eternally vexing, query that humans have trouble asking — never mind answering.

Homo sapiens’ propensity for feats of technical manipulation doesn’t stop with rearranging rivers. The urge extends across prairies, forests, savannas, and oceans. Combined with a warming planet, growing consumption, and the spread of invasive species, it is a chief reason 900 types of animals have gone extinct since industrialization and another million are on the verge of disappearing.

Early on, I feared Tenacious Beasts was yet another nature volume better suited as a series of magazine articles. However, instead of presenting a look-what-I-discovered-during-my-globetrotting account, the University of Montana professor draws impressively on his environmental philosophy chops.

For instance, in fascinating explorations of bison restoration across the American West, Preston clearly explains why the genetic purity of herds matters more to some organizations than others. Relatedly, his eye-opening conversations with the aptly named Melissa Hunt are equally engrossing. The U.S. government hired the young wildlife-management specialist to kill “invasive” barred owls to prevent them from overtaking the forest habitat of the endangered northern spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest. Barred owls harass their smaller brethren and steal their nesting sites.

“This conflicted with a strong intuition I held about the need for wildlife to live independently of us,” an enlightened Preston wrote. “But I was starting to wonder if the intuition was wrong. And the owl prompting Hunt to wield her shotgun was charismatic enough that it might just help change my mind.”

Hunt and others connected to the culling project are steeped in the ethical implications of shooting one type of bird to save another. That’s compounded by strong evidence that humans — by planting belts of trees as they moved into the Great Plains — helped lure the plentiful barred owls westward from their native East Coast in the first place.

As painful as being an “assassin in an ecosystem” must be, Preston discovered plenty of scientists who agree that standing by and watching as spotted owls disappear could be at least as callous as picking up a gun. This awakening is tied to the author’s assertion in his first chapter that humans must practice a different set of attitudes if wild animals are to flourish.

Bryce Andrews, a fellow Montana author Preston interviewed, summed up how that evolution might happen when he stated that “the world in which settlers wiped animals off the landscape without shame is not the world we live in today.”

“The calculus has shifted,” continued Andrews, who works for People and Carnivores, an organization dedicated to the co-existence of farmers and large predators. “New ways of thinking demand innovation, creativity, and courage.”

Across the Atlantic Ocean, ecologists with Salviamo l’Orso in the central Apennines of Italy have already pivoted in that direction. They have embraced intervention to help highly endangered Marsican bears rebound in a place where space is limited. Volunteers trim apple trees in long-abandoned orchards so the brown bears can feast on the robust fruit. Mario Cipollone explains that his organization might be hush-hush about the apple-enhancing but is unabashedly proud of shaping an ecosystem where humans and wildlife alike can thrive.

That concept of species restoration encompassing both natural and historical heritage may be heretical to some modern U.S. wildlife managers, but it’s essential in Native American communities. Preston offers one glimpse of this connection in a tear-inducing passage from a grandmother recounting how the cement of a new dam on the Elwha River bloodied and bruised hundreds of thousands of salmon on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula in 1913. The member of the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe told her grandchildren years later that after watching those fish “jumping, jumping, jumping, trying to get past,” she went back home and cried for hours.

When that same dam was blasted away a century later at the behest of the salmon-reliant tribe, it was yet another indicator that aiding wildlife is a reasonable condition of cohabitation.

For his part, Italy’s Cipollone is convinced coexistence doesn’t solely benefit Marsican bears: “It gives you the feeling you are not only saving the animals, but saving yourself in an overcrowded world.”

Prune away at those apples, Mario. Prune away.

[Editor’s note: This review originally ran in 2023.]

Elizabeth H. McGowan is a Washington, DC-based energy and environment reporter whose work appears in an array of publications. This is her third review for the Independent. She has won numerous awards, including a Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You Never Heard Of” as a staff correspondent for InsideClimate News. Bancroft Press in Baltimore published her memoir, Outpedaling “The Big C”: My Healing Cycle Across America, in 2020. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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