Roosevelt Elk (Courtesy National Park Service)

I was just beginning to open my eyes early one morning in August when I heard mewing and chirping sounds outside my tent; otherwise, the campground in the Hoh Rain Forest was quiet. Unzipping the tent door and peering outside, I saw my friend Andrea quietly walking toward a herd of Roosevelt elk, all cows, and calves—the source of the chirping.

As a campground host, she had been trained to make certain gestures and sounds to move the huge animals away from the camping area and toward the nearby Hoh River. Keeping them outside the campground would be especially important in early fall, when rutting and bugling bulls, some weighing more than a thousand pounds, could become dangerous.

Scrambling into clothes and shoes, I followed Andrea and her co-hosts Julie and David toward the beautiful animals with dark brown heads, pale brown bodies, and cream-colored rumps; they were feeding on grasses, ferns, and shrubs. Eventually, they moved away from the campers and deeper into the forest of moss-covered Sitka spruce, western hemlock, and bigleaf maple. One bull cohabits with this non-migratory elk herd, but he was nowhere to be seen. The evening before I had admired him and his harem from a distance, as the group rested on a gravel bar beside the glacial Hoh River, sparkling in the setting sun.

Visionary leadership

How bereft our spiritual lives would be without the beauty and diversity of life that has evolved on this planet—if we were not able to at least occasionally “come into the peace of wild things,” as Wendell Berry wrote in his beloved poem. Natural beauty makes living worthwhile. Safeguarding wild things in the remaining wild places is a moral act. That visitors to Olympic National Park and other protected areas can still experience the sight of Roosevelt elk is an important conservation success story. Thanks to visionary leaders, there are other, similar stories to tell, but not nearly enough, as species extinction rates accelerate.

The second largest member of the deer family behind moose, the Roosevelt elk was named for the great conservationist Teddy Roosevelt in 1897. That same year, then-president Grover Cleveland created the Olympic Forest Preserve to protect the ecosystem from the intensive logging that was deforesting Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. Twelve years later, when he was president, Teddy established Mount Olympus National Monument, primarily to protect the elk and their habitat. The animals had been hunted nearly to extinction; at the time, upper canine elk teeth were in vogue as watch fobs for members of the Elks Lodge.

Three decades later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt toured the Olympic region and saw the elk named after his distant cousin—as well as the devastation caused by (often illegal) activities of the timber industry. In 1938, Franklin redesignated the federal land to receive greater protection as a national park. Today, Olympic National Park is a World Heritage site with nearly 5,000 Roosevelt elk: the largest, unmanaged herd in the Pacific Northwest.

Wood Stork (Courtesy National Audubon Society)

Wildlife conservation in Georgia

As we paddled through wetlands in south Georgia’s Grand Bay Wildlife Management Area, a dozen or more wood storks circled high above our kayaks, gliding with the thermals: the upward convection of warm, rising air. It was my first viewing of these tall, white-and-black birds with bald heads, small eyes, and large bills—gawky on land, but graceful in the air. I’ll never forget the thrill of seeing them. 

That paddle trip took place in the late 1980s, decades after the storks began disappearing and five years after the bird was added to the federal endangered species list. They had been declining at a rate of 5 percent per year, a trend that would have wiped them out by 2000 without intervention. The draining and development of wetlands, particularly in Florida where the majority of the birds lived then, resulted in their near extinction.

In 2014, U.S. Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell traveled to Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge on Georgia’s coast to announce the wood stork would be downlisted from endangered to threatened; the number of nesting pairs had significantly increased. At Harris Neck and on other land, investments in wetlands restoration over decades helped ensure the bird’s survival.

Other wildlife populations in Georgia have benefited from strong conservation programs, including the white-tailed deer (nearly extinct in the early 1900s), wild turkeys (also nearly extinct a century ago), red-cockaded woodpeckers (federally-listed as endangered species for fifty years, recently downlisted), and the gopher tortoise, among others.

Considered a keystone species, the gopher tortoise is linked to the survival of more than 350 other wildlife species that benefit from their spacious burrows in longleaf pine forests across the Southeast. Development, agriculture, climate change, invasive species, and other issues have resulted in serious habitat loss and a federally threatened species listing in some states. In Georgia, a collaborative initiative with private landowners has succeeded in permanently protecting nearly 65 viable gopher tortoise populations.

Right whales need help

Efforts to protect the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, whose winter calving grounds include Georgia’s coast, are not going so well; fewer than 350 exist. Hunted to near extinction, listed as an endangered species fifty years ago, and now “in crisis,” this whale faces familiar enemies: human greed and ignorance.

Georgia Congressman Buddy Carter (R-Savannah) and others are fighting a proposed revision to the federal rule governing speeds for boats over thirty-five feet in length. Imposed only during winter months, the speed reduction would help minimize vessel collisions with whales. Carter has stated, without proof, that the shipping industry and jobs will be negatively impacted. Will we allow yet another wild species to become extinct on our watch? 

Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and an environmental and sustainability advocate. Her award-winning Above the Waterline column appears monthly in Atlanta Intown.