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Review

Seeking Refuge: Birds and Landscapes of the Pacific Flyway

By Robert M. Wilson

November 4, 2013

Review By Gary Kaiser

The most spectacular and accessible wildlife spectacle in British Columbia is the annual arrival of snow geese on Westham Island. For twenty-five years my office overlooked Reifel Refuge, and flocks of snow geese tumbling out of the sky marked the annual onset of winter. I was manager of the migratory bird program for the Canadian Wildlife Service, and the return of the snow geese was a major event. We would literally run outside to see how many young had survived the long flight from their breeding grounds on Wrangel Island off Siberia and begin the annual tally of neck collars. Most of the geese stayed only a few weeks before heading south to national wildlife refuges in the Great Central Valley of California. Once the geese crossed the border, we heard nothing of them until their return in the spring. 

From a Canadian point of view, these refuges were almost as exotic and remote as Wrangel Island. At international meetings the managers would willingly discuss details of water entitlement and land ownership but said little of the refuges’ value to snow geese and other migrants. The refuges remain a relatively obscure but apparently essential element in the survival of waterfowl in the Pacific Flyway, and Robert Wilson’s Seeking Refuge offers an objective and factual description of their tumultuous history. 

In spite of its subtitle, this book is not about birds. Pintail and Ruddy Duck make it into the index; Mallard, Teal, Canada Goose, and Ross Goose do not; Snow Goose only appears in reference to a map. Nonetheless, these birds make up the majority of the millions of travellers along the Pacific Flyway, and this book focuses on the social and political geography of its southern terminus, the Central Valley of California. The Atlantic, Mississippi, and Western flyways end in the low-lying coastal wetlands of the Gulf of Mexico. Both areas have been affected by industrial activity for a century and a half, but the gulf coast remains intact, at least in part. The wetlands of the Central Valley, and the Klamath Basin, have disappeared beneath homesteads, irrigation schemes, and artificially constructed habitat. It has become one of the most intensively modified patches of rural habitats in the world, and, in the process, indigenous communities, fish populations, and wintering birds have all suffered. Wilson puts the biological problems within the context of a long history of competing land-use interests, water entitlements, and overlapping mandates of powerful federal agencies. He manages to remain dispassionate, even though many of the management decisions are characterized by greed, ignorance, arrogance, and outright stupidity. 

This is a very clearly written book that deals concisely with a hundred years’ worth of complex confrontations and conflicts in surprisingly few pages. The story is completed in only five chapters covering 170 pages, but it is supported by an additional forty pages of notes and 322 references to published sources. Although it rarely touches on events in the Canadian portion of the flyway, it offers useful object lessons regarding the dangers of interfering with fundamental ecological processes.

Seeking Refuge: Birds and Landscapes of the Pacific Flyway by Robert M. Wilson
Seattle: University of Washington Press 2010. 264 pp. $35.00. Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books