July 2, 1995

Board of Directors

East Bay Regional Park District

2950 Peralta Oaks Court

Oakland, California 94605-5369

Re: "Recovering" the Alameda whipsnake; causality in humans


In my last letter, I suggested that "mountain" bicyclists pose a danger to the whipsnake. At the time, I was not aware of just how accurate my intuition was. I wasn't aware that a bicyclist had just killed (in Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve) one of the largest whipsnakes ever found (a female, hence, due to the time of year, probably carrying young), in a hit-and-run accident! (Isn't it common sense that, since fast-moving vehicles are absent from their evolutionary memory, they are not able to cope with them?)

[I just heard that my intuition about bulldozers being a threat to the snake is also true: snakes have indeed been cut in half by bulldozers "maintaining" "trails", and a bulldozer in Tilden just recently cut through a burrow that had been occupied by a whipsnake. Just by luck, the snake wasn't "home" at the time. I would have thought that the noise of the bulldozer would have scared any snake off, but I was told that they can't cope with the speed of the vehicle.]

I called the park and talked to ranger Carol Richmond. She didn't know much about the incident, and obviously didn't think it very important. When I suggested that you close the gravel road where it happened, at least to all vehicles, she told me that was "impractical" and was "not going to happen".

Then I talked with the park supervisor, Roger Epstein. He said that it was "an isolated incident" and not important, and said that closing the road was "impossible" and not in his power. He said that because it is a road, it is "impossible" to close it to bicycles, and that it is needed for trucks carrying heavy equipment used to work on the (Hazel Atlas) mine. He said that he "cares about" wildlife, and that if I want to do something to help the whipsnake, I should try to stop development in the region. He said that since he sees many whipsnakes, they must be "doing fine".

You may find this hard to believe, but I would be perfectly happy to live my entire life without bicycling that particular 1/4 mile to the Hazel Atlas mine, and to forego whatever remodelling you are doing. In fact, it would probably not hurt me never to see it at all! There is an unfortunate trend in our parks to pander to the lowest common denominator of human motivations and current fads, in order to maximize the number of people coming to the parks. Why? Why should the parks pattern themselves after Disneyland and other "amusement" parks? There are plenty of urbanized, manicured, artificial environments like that for people who want that. Natural areas, on the other hand, are becoming extremely rare. In fact, according to Bill McKibben (The End of Nature), they no longer exist, since every square inch of the Earth has been tampered with by man, his excretions, and his technology.

When visiting an area, I want to see what is unique and characteristic of that area, which I might see only once in my life. That means native wildlife! Humans and our artifacts are pretty much the same, worldwide, since we and our culture are so mobile. But wildlife are far less flexible, and are often inseparable from local geologic and geographic conditions. (For example, a large proportion of the wildlife in Australia lives nowhere else on Earth.) Mines and roads are a dime a dozen. The Alameda whipsnake is rare ("Threatened", under the California Endangered Species Act) and lives only in Alameda and Contra Costa (one specimen was sighted in Santa Clara) Counties, California. Considering that the Earth is losing, by current estimates, 10,000-100,000 species per year, human "needs" ring hollow (and are hollow). Next in interest after wildlife, are native peoples, who have lived here at least a hundred times as long as we have.

On my one visit to Capitol Reef National Monument, I was very disappointed to find that the only ranger talk during my stay was on the "pioneers", instead of the scheduled topic of native peoples of the area. On my last visit to the Grand Canyon, 2 of the 3 talks were on modern human visitors to the area. (The other was on the fish that we have driven to extinction by building Glen Canyon Dam.) Take a look at your "Regional Parks" pamphlet. 16 of the 25 photos on the cover are of people. In the many years that I have been receiving your Board agendas, there hasn't been a single mention of endangered species or the Alameda whipsnake. (However, nearly every one requests the purchase of some new species of motor vehicle.) In your calendar, in all those years, there has been only a single ranger talk on endangered species (in Crab Cove), even though there are many endangered (in the usual, not legal sense) species in your parks. (I was the only person who attended it, so it had to be cancelled.) To my knowledge, the only sign in the parks about such species is the one about the California newt, placed on South Park Drive, at my suggestion, to explain to people why the road was closed. In contrast, Mount Diablo State Park does have a sign about the whipsnake.

As to Epstein's passing the buck to the developers, this is exactly why nobody is doing anything to protect the snake! The developers blame the public, the public blames the politicians, the politicians blame "political realities", etc., and nobody does anything -- one of the few examples of a true perpetual-motion machine! Isn't it obvious that huge problems like this cannot be solved by a single individual, group, government agency, business, or any other single entity? They can only be solved by all of them doing their part! He and his ranger said they care about wildlife, but "care" is meaningless if it doesn't involve any concrete action: neither even bothered to find out the details about the snake that was killed, apparently afraid it might upset their particular apple cart. (Maybe if too many people heard about endangered wildlife being killed by bicycles in a supposed wildlife sanctuary, some policies would have to change....) I don't expect anyone to singlehandedly restore the whipsnake, but I do expect everyone to do what is in their power to do! This includes learning the facts, spreading them around, and telling the truth. The East Bay Regional Park District is doing almost nothing to restore the whipsnake, and certainly nowhere near what you are capable of doing.

Most people don't seem to understand causality. They assume that the most obvious cause (e.g. the developer destroying habitat, the bicycle or bulldozer killing a whipsnake, the legislator introducing an anti-environmental amendment, etc.) should be the focus of our efforts. This is dangerously naive. Something as simple as a sign introducing park visitors to the existence and plight of the whipsnake, and asking them to be careful, can have enormous cumulative, synergistic effects (see chaos theory). Bicyclists and bulldozer drivers, like everyone else, are completely ignorant of the whipsnake, and consequently don't know why they should slow down.

As to Mr. Epstein's claim that the whipsnake is "doing fine" because he has seen many of them, this is nonsense. Such observations could result from the snakes being so desperate that they lose their usual caution. Only a scientific study can determine the true status of the snake, who is "doing fine" only if it thinks it is. I think that taking the point of view of the wildlife themselves is a very useful tool, that has rarely, if ever, been used. I would like to see us stop letting politics ("we can't close roads") get in the way of biology. First, we need to get the biological facts, honestly and fearlessly, and then we can make a rational, informed decision on what to do about it (remembering that humans are vastly more flexible than wildlife, and far more dependent on them than we like to admit).


Michael J. Vandeman, Ph.D.