Unnatural Selection

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, September 1999

Unnatural Selection
When a protected bird preys on a nearly extinct fish, who do you back?

From the water, tiny rice island in the Columbia River seems a peaceful place, the tall grass riffling in the breeze and birds circling overhead. Come ashore, however, and the pastoral scene is shattered by a dozen miles of plastic mesh strung across branches and half a dozen biologists racing about with clipboards in hand. Welcome to ground zero for one of the thornier wildlife quandaries in recent memory: When one federally protected species kills off another federally protected species in mass numbers, which side do you root for?

The question first arose in 1996, when fishery biologists made a distressing discovery. The world's largest colony of at-risk Caspian terns (some 17,000, all inhabiting Rice Island) were gorging themselves on 15 million coho, sockeye, and chinook salmon each year. Alarmed, scientists with a half-dozen federal agencies unveiled an unprecedented planùrelocating the terns to East Sand Island, 15 miles downstream and away from the majority of migrating salmon.

After scientists with the Army Corps of Engineers crisscrossed Rice Island with the mesh netting to discourage nesting, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists festooned East Sand Island with 400 enticing decoys and a solar-powered CD player broadcasting a sensuous melody of tern squawks and croons through loudspeakers. By early July, 3,000 tern transplants had made the move.

A success? Not according to some preservationists, who worry that the relocation casts a beleaguered species as a scapegoat when the problems lie with an abused ecosystemùin this case, a river blighted by dams and development. For their part, however, those involved are simply thrilled that the wooing is working. "We play tern love songs seven days a week," says Fisheries and Wildlife biologist David Craig. "They find this place irresistible."

The Farce of Gravity
When NBC's Gravity Games kick off this month in Providence, Rhode Island, the network will be betting that Americans still haven't had their fill of overhyped and artificially conceived "extreme" sports contests. "There's a huge demand for these events," insists Scott Seymour, executive director of the Gravity Games. "And we're giving them a broader platform." But despite its eagerness to spend tens of millions of dollars to broadcast the spectacle on prime-time television, NBC was apparently unable to conceive a fresh approach. The four-day contest will feature the usual summer X Games smorgasbord of downhill in-line skating, wakeboarding, motocross, skateboarding, and street luge. Meanwhile ESPN, which started this mess in the first place, thinks it can trump the competition by hatching a roster of bizarre new events like the "Big Air Dog," a canine long-jump that will premiere next summer alongside competitive fly-fishing and log-sawing at the cable channel's inaugural Outdoor Games. "People want something different," says ESPN spokesman Chris Stiepock. "And this will have dog owners across America glued to the TV."

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