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Turtles, Coyotes, Butterflies

Man's stewardship of nature has come a long way in the 20th century. But there is no shortage of cases that illustrate the distance still to go.

Consider the effort to save sea turtles. The biggest threat to the turtles is humanity's growing taste for seafood. Turtles themselves are rarely served up as delicacies anymore, except in parts of Asia, but they regularly get snared by the nets of shrimpers. All seven species of sea turtle are listed as either endangered, threatened, or vulnerable by the United States government.

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The turtles' hope lies in stronger enforcement of current law, the creation of marine reserves to safeguard nesting areas, and international conventions to extend the requirement that shrimp boats use nets that allow turtles to escape. These steps could give rare species like the Kemp's ridley turtle a chance to recover. About 1,000 nesting females are thought to exist. In the late 1940s, 40,000 of the turtles were counted on Mexico's Rancho Nuevo beach in a day. That Mexican beach had been the only nesting site for the Kemp's ridley, but US conservationists have succeeded in establishing another site on Padre Island, Texas.

Mexico has set aside its beach and the waters off it as a reserve, off limits to fishermen and egg hunters. Texas and the federal government should follow that lead, creating a marine sanctuary to protect the Padre Island site.

Turtles vs. the WTO

Sea turtles are on a collision course not only with nets and the plastic garbage they tend to ingest, but with the global economy itself. US law forbids the import of shrimp from countries that don't require turtle-safe nets. But that law has been successfully challenged before the World Trade Organization as an infringement of free trade. As a compromise, the US has shifted to a shipload by shipload inspection process instead of an outright ban. Shrimp certified as caught by nets designed to free turtles are allowed into the US market. Trouble is, there's no way to know how trustworthy the certification is.

Conservationists have sued the federal government over this compromise, and a final decision is awaited.

Meanwhile, this apparent conflict between two positives - unfettered trade and species preservation - is unsettling. On balance, however, the commercial imperative should give way to the environmental one. There's little room for compromise if the turtles are to survive.

Washington vs. the coyote

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Another case where stewardship is at issue: The US Department of Agriculture's predator-control program, euphemistically named Wildlife Services. For the past 58 years, the USDA has paid hunters to kill coyotes, foxes, bobcats, and other creatures that might threaten livestock on Western ranges. The preferred methods, currently, are aerial shooting, trapping, and poisoning. Occasionally, protected species such as wolves, and even domestic pets, get exterminated. Some 146,000 predators (well over half of them coyotes) were killed in 17 states in 1997.

There are times when predators may have to be killed. But should the US government be spending millions each year to do this work in a sweeping, often inhumane fashion? Congress last week turned down a bipartisan amendment that would have cut $7 million from Wildlife Services. Its sponsors should persist.

The monarch vs. biotechnology

One last case - the monarch butterfly. This insect, both beautiful and beneficial, has already suffered from human encroachment on its wintering habitat in Mexico. Research now indicates it may also be hit, inadvertently, by the pollen of genetically engineered pest-resistant corn in the US. The pollen, which contains a toxin, may drift onto milkweed eaten by monarch larvae. Laboratory tests indicate a large percentage of larvae exposed to such pollen die. The findings are preliminary. But the message - to prevent unintended consequences of technological change - is clear.

Taking care of nature's bounty and beauty demands vigilance, the essence of good stewardship. The world's sea turtles, coyotes, and butterflies have more defenders than ever. The case for protection will be made. But the trade-offs are difficult - with human economic factors on the other side of the scales.

The march of commerce, development, and technology may not brake for nature. It can, however, be guided by a respect for nature - by the recognition that any loss or careless slaughter of fellow creatures diminishes humanity's heritage, as well as its moral stature. Effective stewardship is squarely on the 21st century agenda.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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