Guest columnist Kate Lindroos Conlin: Booming Ben’s lament

Published: 12/8/2021 1:11:24 PM
Modified: 12/8/2021 1:10:57 PM

The derogatory prejudice exemplified by Bart Bouricius’s Nov. 26 op-ed (“The destructive arrogance of habitat management”) discredits educated and experienced natural science professionals.

He claims that these professionals are driven by the modern “industrial economic system” and not by the scientific process. This accusation is reliant on an unsubstantiated claim that timber barons and international wood bosses have paid off research universities, land trusts, state institutions, government officials, in order to orchestrate one of the most elaborate and least profitable schemes in human history.

He also claims, without citing specific examples, that active forest management carried out and promoted by MassWildlife is a direct contributor to mass extinction and the biodiversity crisis.

A quick online search reveals that the most recent extinction to occur in Massachusetts was that of the heath hen. As its name suggests, this species was associated with heathland habitats which are typically free of closed canopy forest as a result of frequent fire. The heath hen’s rapid decline was due to over-hunting and loss of fire-influenced habitat, which reduced their numbers to a point where inbreeding and disease became significant issues.

It appears that much of what MassWildlife does today would have benefited the heath hen, namely habitat management and the sustainable issuance of hunting licenses by setting bag limits dictated by population size and health.

The last heath hen was named Booming Ben. He died on March 11, 1932, in Martha’s Vineyard. In “The Sad Story of Booming Ben, Last of the Health Hens,” Rebecca Heisman writes: “Islanders nicknamed the remaining heath hen ‘Booming Ben,’ after the noise grouse make during their elaborate mating display. With no females left to impress and no other males to compete against, however, Ben remained silent. ‘The bird presented a pathetic figure as it stood out there all alone,’ wrote Bowdoin College professor Alfred O. Gross at the time, ‘without any companions save the crows that had come to share the food intended for the heath hen.’”

It’s theorized that the first Thanksgiving actually featured heath hen who were so abundant they would later roam Boston Common and were considered for a time a poor person’s food.

Even though there were, eventually, multiple concerted efforts to help the species rebound, the prevailing social misconception of fire ecology and how it affects diversity didn’t allow for the necessary natural habitat for them to remain on the landscape. This should serve as a cautionary tale.

The Massachusetts State Wildlife Action Plan “presents the 570 Species of Greatest Conservation Need in the Commonwealth, the 24 types of habitat that support these species, and the actions necessary to conserve them.” These species have as much of a right to live here as Mr. Bouricius does.

Mr. Bouricius claims that before modern human consumption, which is “only a few hundred years old,” trees would “manage themselves” absent any outside influence. To claim this is to deny the very notion of what an ecosystem is, absurdly and dangerously exempting from natural processes small and large mammals, birds, fungi, insects, soil microbes, and the full suite of living, destroying, dying organisms that all consume in order to survive. Furthermore, romanticizing the pre-colonial landscape as “untouched” delegitimizes the Indigenous impact on the land by treating it as inconsequential.

DCR and MassWildlife have both proven their commitment to wild spaces with the designation of reserves. They do not refute the importance of older, mature forests. But, not every tree in Massachusetts is as privileged as the giant white pines (some of the tallest in New England) that feature in the Leverett research paper cited by Bouricius. Most trees compete with a lot of anthropogenic factors that will undoubtably dictate their long-term survival, their ability to harbor and influence life around them, as well as their ability to store carbon.

I urge readers to not get sucked into a divisive position. The philosophical argument regarding the management of natural places has existed for over a century and for good reason. There are important elements to both “sides” that need to be considered with full respect and an open and honest dialogue. Let’s do that. We owe it to Booming Ben.

Kate Lindroos Conlin lives in Buckland and independently manages societyforforeststewardship.org.


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