by Whit Gibbons

January 20, 2002

This week's good news in ecology involves mudpuppies and ice fishermen, spider lilies and automobile tags. The bad news is that further threats to wildlife protection are on the horizon due to paranoia, ignorance, and politics. Let's get the bad news out of the way first.

A recent news report sends a negative message in more ways than one. The bad news is not the wildlife reports themselves but the fact that they have received undue attention. Here are the reported problems: deer cause a billion dollars in damage to cars each year (wonder what the deer think about the damages?); coyotes kill $70 million worth of livestock each year; turtles, alligators, foxes, and woodchucks cause extensive damage to small planes on airstrips in rural areas. The first problem with news of this nature is that it is presented as if the wild animals are the ones causing the problems without mentioning that maybe we have too many cars and too few hunters, too many sheep and cows grazing on public lands, and too many airstrips built in what should be wildlife habitat.

The second problem with this report is that some of the facts are inaccurate. Do you really think coyotes eat the equivalent of more than a million dollars worth of sheep and cows each week? Not likely. The third problem arising from the report is that Congress has turned its attention to the issue as if it were up to it to decide how to address "the problems." One solution in the past has been to sanction the Department of Agriculture to take measures, such as poisoning wildlife that someone considers a nuisance. Of course, the more serious problem is that members of Congress with antienvironmental agendas may use such reports to weaken the Endangered Species Act and other forms of environmental protection.

But good environmental news does exist, in the form of two state departments of natural resources (DNR) that have made positive moves. Michigan's DNR has taken a courageous stand in behalf of mudpuppies. Any group that takes the side of a mistreated underdog, or in this case, underpuppy, should be commended. Mudpuppies are aquatic salamanders that would not win even an amphibian beauty contest. Big ones look like two-pound brown sausages with broad, flat heads, big feathery red gills, and stubby legs. Mudpuppies have been maligned like many other forms of American wildlife because they are not colorful, edible, or a game species, or do not have some other feature that serves humans directly.

But mudpuppies are inoffensive, fascinating creatures of lakes and streams of the eastern United States. They are native animals that many people would agree have a right to carry out their natural life in their native habitat. Yet, hundreds or thousands have died this winter after making the mistake of biting baited fishhooks belonging to Michigan ice fishermen who mistakenly think the salamanders eat game fish. Hence, those caught are tossed on the ice to die. The DNR has put out an advisory that anglers should return the mudpuppies to the water, a sensible suggestion.

In another approach toward wildlife protection, South Carolina's DNR is asking the public to vote on which design to use on the new endangered species license tag. The design used for several years has been the bald eagle, which is no longer an endangered species. Choices for the new plant or animal to appear on the license plates loggerhead sea turtle, rocky shoals spider lily, and swallow-tail kite can be viewed at All the tag examples look pretty impressive, and the idea is one other states should consider. The money used to purchase the new tags goes toward efforts to protect endangered species in the state.

Deciding whether most environmental news is good or bad depends on a person's perspective, but surely no one can complain about people using their vehicle taxes for environmental protection or pitching cold mudpuppies back into the water.

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