All Creatures Great and Small
Collette Adkins provides a voice—and legal advocacy—for the world’s carnivores
If you spot a critically endangered, tuft-eared, thick-furred Canada lynx around Minnesota—or just its large pawprint—credit Collette Adkins (M.S. ’99, J.D. ’05).
Thanks to her longtime leadership as the senior attorney at the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity (www.biologicaldiversity.org), where she directs the carnivore conservation program, a federal court has finally ordered a stop to most uses of strangulation snares. Those snares are actually intended for other animals, but have been killing the rare wildcats—as well as dogs—in northeastern Minnesota.
Trapping, along with climate change and habitat destruction, has whittled the state’s lynx population to perhaps 50, says Adkins. After this ruling, they have a better shot.
The Center (which is headquartered in Tuscon, although Adkins works from Minneapolis) describes its work like this: “Because diversity has intrinsic value, and because its loss impoverishes society, we work to secure a future for all species, great and small, hovering on the brink of extinction. We do so through science, law, and creative media, with a focus on protecting the lands, waters, and climate that species need to survive.”
That kind of goalpost drives Adkins, who grew up “in the woods” of Blaine and spending summers in the Boundary Waters region, home to black bear, moose, beaver, timberwolves, and various birds of prey. Planning to use her master’s in wildlife conservation from the University to teach young people to care about the environment, she soon saw the benefits of a more direct approach: hence a further degree from the U of M law school.
A lot of lawyers have no science background, Adkins notes. “I need to make the case against removing protections for grizzly bears—climate change, viable populations, land use—by understanding the scientific studies. That’s what I learned at the U of M. Add the legal degree, which taught me to research and write and use the law, and that’s a powerful combination.”
The center’s executive director, Kierán Suckling, agrees. “People are not necessarily adept at both” writing litigation briefs and presenting oral arguments, he says. Adkins’ “briefs are erudite and to the point, and in hearings she has tremendous ability to respond in real time and make compelling arguments to the court.”
Adkins lives with two teens, her fiancé, two dogs, two cats, three backyard chickens, and honeybees in a Minneapolis suburb. It’s convenient for those days when she’s testifying at the Capitol, leading a protest, or speaking at a hearing of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.
Most often, though, she’s collaborating with nonprofit colleagues on research, briefs, or those educational advocacy emails that say, “Click here to send a letter to your representative about. . . .”
Policymakers pay close attention to such mail, she says; public outcry has helped to save at-risk animals like the bald eagle and grizzly bear (among many others) from extinction; protect crucial habitat for thousands of imperiled species; and, just in May, ban for-profit killings of turtles in Minnesota.
And then there are long-documented scientific success stories, including the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park: Elk, which had previously stayed put munching on willows, were forced to keep moving because of the predators. That meant the willows grew back, in turn stabilizing riverbanks. Birds returned, as did fish driven away when willows no longer shaded the water. And so on.
“Some environmental problems are pretty hard to solve; they may need worldwide action,” Adkins says. “But something like this, really all you need to do is stop mistreating them and they will do OK. That’s the power of the law—a lot of my work is focused on retaining federal protection under the Endangered Species Act.”
The wolf population of Minnesota has also recovered to about 3,000 animals, she adds. Three results: a healthier, if smaller, deer population; fewer car wrecks due to deer encounters; and more wildflowers in forest understories.
Farmers and ranchers often object to wolf reintroduction out of concern for their animals’ safety. Adkins points to possible safety measures like fencing, guard dogs, motion-sensing lights, and range riders (for some of these, funding may be available), and adds that education is key to countering peoples’ concerns. She notes that wolves are intelligent pack animals, and shooting one of the pack impairs their ability to go after native prey—making them, ironically, more likely to approach livestock.
Threats to animals come not only from climate change, vehicles, and traps, but also from legislation designed to protect moneyed interests, from oil drillers to land developers. Nonetheless, Adkins sees “a lot of reason for optimism.”
Largely, public attitudes toward carnivores have changed over decades: Having once seen wolves, grizzlies, and lynx simply as predatory threats that deserve to be wiped out, a majority now appreciates these animals as valuable to the ecosystem and cares about animal suffering.
“It’s an enormous benefit,” she says, “to have both public opinion and science on our side.”
Ellen Ryan is a freelance writer based in Rockville, Maryland.