Moving Animals

This summer the Moving Animals team participated in the European Society for Environmental History conference (held in Bern, Switzerland) in various ways, including presenting on two panels and participating in the Summer School.

[Media clipping from Vincent’s archival research in Michigan, US, 2023]

Vincent Bijman presented “The Sea Lamprey invasion in the Great Lakes, 1940s-1960s: On the science, management, and media representation of an invasive species in a polluted aquatic ecosystem” on the panel “Contradictions of North American Natures” organised by the ESEH Programme Committee and chaired by Thomas Michael Lekan.

During the 1920s, a Sea Lamprey (Petromyzon marinus) was for the first time observed in the waters of Lake Erie, part of the Great Lakes. It was traditionally a coastal predatory fish, that due to various canal extensions was able to move upstream and was regarded to have caused the destruction of the already pressured fishery economy. The dispersal of the Sea Lamprey drew a response from a coalition of scientists and civil servants from both the United States and Canada, who tried to understand the complex Sea Lamprey life cycle and invented technological solutions to control the invasion, such as weir trapping and poisoning. The Sea Lamprey became entangled in international postwar invasive species discourse and was represented as an intrusive ‘other’ that endangered the existing economy and the natural balance of the Great Lakes. This paper draws from various primary source materials, including committee hearing minutes, scientific reports and newspaper clippings to show how the creation of the invasive Sea Lamprey depended on situated knowledge production, management practices and environmental discourse that emphasized fish as an economical resource. Traditionally, the Sea Lamprey invasion has become regarded as a watershed moment in Great Lakes history, causing the full decline of the fishery economy and catalyzing applied research and cross-border management. Less attention has been given to how animal agency, the imagination of the animal as an invasive predator and changing scientific and control practices informed the representation of the Sea Lamprey and resulted in a ‘killable’ fish.

[Newspaper clipping from Monica’s archival research in British Columbia, Canada, 2022]

Monica Vasile presented “Marmot decline on Vancouver Island, a history of science and conservation,” on the panel “Mountain critters and creatures – conflicts and coexistence,” organised by Claudia M Leal and chaired by Libby Robin.

The ‘critically endangered’ marmots living on the mountain tops of Vancouver Island almost became extinct in the 1990s. It took humans nearly ten years to resolve that they were declining and to understand why. Eventually, scientists discovered that the cause of the marmots’ decline was anthropogenic: extraction of timber and construction of forestry roads changed the relationship between marmots and their predators – wolves and cougars. Logged land deceived marmots; when they dispersed, youngsters settled in clearcuts, which looked to be equivalent to alpine meadows. But there, they became easy prey: moving fast along the newly cut roads, predators had effortless access to marmot colonies in clearcuts. Scientists estimated the rate of predation was unsustainable. The tiny island population spiralled down the extinction path, and by the end of the 1990s, wild living marmots numbered less than fifty. But it was not the end of the game. Humans captured a part of the remaining population, transported them to Toronto and Calgary zoo for captive breeding, and then released the marmots back into the alpine habitat. In this presentation, I explore the story of the Vancouver Island marmots, a story of an intense human-animal relationship, unfolding across the second half of the twentieth century. This case explores a series of broader questions: How do humans come to understand animal lifeways and species decline? How do they act to repair damage and what can humans do in the face of extinction?

Leading up to the conference, Vanessa Bateman participated in the ESEH Summer School in Val d’Anniviers for early career researchers, featuring Monica as one of the lecturers. The summer school addressed “Common pool resources in the «visual turn» – collective alpine pastures, forests and waters in the first half of the 20th century.” Both were in the working group on “Alpiculture,” and learned about domestic and wild animals in the Swiss alps, which included a visit to the Alpage de Rouaz and a hike in search for Hérens cattle (top image).