Our environment reflects our policies

By Audrey L. Mayer


One afternoon last fall, I watched a pair of peregrine falcons (Falco peregrinus) chase off a bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) as I sat at my desk at home in Houghton, Michigan. This particular pair of peregrines was most likely the duo that fledged 3 young from a next box on the lift bridge that spans the Portage Canal, between the small towns of Houghton and Hancock. I am often able to watch these peregrines dive through flocks of pigeons flushed from the bridge on their daily hunt; pigeon control was a main driver for putting raptor nesting boxes on the bridge. I also get to witness bald eagles picking through our garbage bags before the ice breaks up on the canal in late winter. Most Americans think of bald eagles as majestic birds soaring above a crystal clear lake, but those of us who live with large numbers of them know them for the occasional scavengers that they are.environmental policy, Endangered Species Act, science policy, biodiversity

As I watched the peregrines dive-bomb the eagle (who begrudgingly soared down the canal after a few minutes), it struck me that I wouldn’t have seen this just a few decades ago. Numbers of bald eagles were driven perilously low due to unregulated hunting, and both peregrines and bald eagles were then imperiled by the widespread use of DDT and its negative impacts on their reproductive systems.

Had these two species disappeared from this landscape, how would their absence have affected our terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems?

Imagine for a moment that the US Environmental Protection Agency had not banned DDT, that its benefits for mosquito abatement had outweighed its negative environmental consequences. It’s quite likely that the bald eagle, peregrine falcon, brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis), and countless other bird species would have been critically endangered or extinct by now, to say nothing of its decades of impacts on other terrestrial and aquatic animals. The laws and treaties enacted in the past 100 years have ensured that the food webs and ecosystems that we all study now weren’t unimaginably impoverished.

There are increasingly high profile calls for scientists to become more engaged with policy and policy makers, to ensure that science becomes a more vocal and influential special interest group in the policy process. Invariably these articles stress that this work takes a lot of time, which is certainly true. But what they often leave unsaid is why this time is well-spent… why time seeking out and working with the policy and governance world should be prioritized over the many other tasks we have on our to-do lists.

Every field site, ecosystem, and landscape that we study today reflects the legacy of countless international treaties, national and state laws, land use zoning decisions, and tax relief programs. The impact of policy on our science is critically important but vastly underappreciated. Our discussions regarding whether and how we engage in the policy process should reflect an awareness of the many ways that these policies drive what we see and do every day in our research.

I have an academic interest in environmental policy for sure, but on an emotional level I am grateful for the regulations and agencies which serve to protect the species that I enjoy today. US representatives are currently aiming to weaken the Endangered Species Act, and to let companies off the hook for violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act if birds are killed “accidentally”. As an academic, I know that these decisions are not effective policy decisions, and that they will likely result in a noticeable change in the data I gather and use. We are already discussing whether science has enough of an impact on policy, but we need to become more aware of how policy impacts our science.

Author Biography: Audrey Mayer is an Associate Professor of Ecology and Environmental Policy at Michigan Technological University

Image credit: Michigan Department of Transportation