Tag Archives: #Endangered Species Act

Pieces in the Mosaic

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Over the past few decades, we’ve grown used to campaigns imploring us to save one animal or another. Usually the photogenic or impressive species. Save The Whale, Save The Panda, and so on. Shortly after the United States’ Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, a case came along about a modest creature, the Tennessee snail darter. In keeping with its unprepossessing name, this innocuous little member of the perch family became famous for getting in the way of a construction project, the Tellico Dam.

The snail darter wasn’t considered glorious enough, in and of itself, to be a contender for ‘Save The’ status. And if the Endangered Species Act had been passed unanimously in the Senate and 390-12 in the House of Representatives, the snail darter showed the limits of congressional commitment. There were those who correctly saw that the movement to save the snail darter was not a campaign for a single species, but for an ecosystem at the expense of an infrastructure project.

Fish, Roman mosaic.

Republican Howard Baker of Tennessee argued at the time that “the snail darter has become an unfortunate example of environmental extremism, and this kind of extremism, if rewarded and allowed to persist, will spell the doom to the environmental protection movement in this country more surely and more quickly than anything else. (…)we who voted for the Endangered Species Act with the honest intentions of protecting such glories of nature as the wolf, the eagle, and other treasures have found that extremists with wholly different motives are using this noble act for meanly obstructive ends.”

This type of hierarchical perspective – the attitude that some animals are more noble, more glorious, prettier and thus more worthy of protection than others because we are impressed by them in some way – is one of those markers of humanity that trips us up time and time again. It’s typically human to not see the forest for all the trees.

It’s hard to imagine in this automated age, but let’s try to picture the mosaic of a human city as an ecosystem brimming with different species. Let’s insert activities and services in that world in the place of species, which often perform ‘services’ in their ecosystems.

St. Stephen mosaic, Askalon.
Source: Kingdom of Jordan

And at some point, some of the smaller activities start to disappear. Flower shops, say, or soap manufacturers, winemakers. Not disastrous, but not ideal. We miss the soap quite a bit, and the wine, and we give up decorative bouquets.

And then maybe a few bigger activities. Gas stations. Grocery infrastructure. Clothes shops. Coffee growers. We can still function and adapt, but life isn’t what it was. And then maybe a few big ones. Banks, grain growers, water infrastructure maintenance, cell phone towers. Electricity generators.

If we acknowledge that our society needs most of its parts to fully function, why should it be any different for the individual species of a given ecosystem?

The Lod mosaic.
Source: Espoarte

It’s been decades since various laws, treaties, and organizations were formed around the world to protect the environment, from the IUCN (The World Conservation Union) to CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), and yet for the general public, species preservation is still by and large perceived as a one-off undertaking.

We are only beginning to understand the role that species play in the mosaics of their ecosystems, even as they are going extinct at the greatest rate since the Cretaceous era 66 million years ago. Meanwhile, as we insist that our human ecosystem is has more value, we are losing up to 140,000 species every year.

We imagine societal dystopias all the time in books, movies and games. We don’t even know what the ecosystem we call home will look like as we move further through the Anthropocene extinction event currently underway.

So do your bit. Support endangered species movements and campaigns. Saving a species, even something as ‘lowly’ as a snail darter, means a lot more than just saving a pretty face.

I wrote this for International Endangered Species Day – but it’s equally relevant for International Day for Biodiversity. Obviously.

And if you think that’s too many days to think about biodiversity, conservation, endangered species and extinction, my response would be: it’s 363 short of how many days these issues are of relevance to each and every one of us.

 

*Note: The snail darter is now considered ‘vulnerable’ after a few more small populations were found elsewhere in Tennessee. The economic impact of the Tellico Dam has not been assessed.

The Biology Thing

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It’s no secret that the collective imagination has a deep-rooted fear of wolves. Our legends and fairy tales are populated with powerful wolves getting up to all manner of naughtiness, from pretending to be something they aren’t (whether dressed as Grandmother or sheep), to reflecting our animal sides in the form of werewolves, to simply eating things we’d rather they didn’t.

Gray wolf Image: Womaneko/Deviantart

Gray wolf
Image: Womaneko/Deviantart

The gray wolf was hunted to near extinction in the United States, and was then listed as protected under the Endangered Species Act. It’s been making a steady comeback over the years, although by comparison to the real success stories of the ESA, the wolf is nowhere near truly recovered as a species. It’s out of the ICU, but still stuck on life support.

Nonetheless, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) moved to delist the gray wolf on a federal level in 2013 and turn wolf management over to the state level. It has already been allowed to be delisted in several individual states, and the effect on the wolf population through hunting and trapping has been devastating. Years of conservation work has been undone.

The room to make comments on the USFWS proposal, which had been closed, has now been reopened due to an outcry among conservationists that the USFWS had not used the best available science to reach their delisting recommendation. Comments can now be made here until March 27.

Group of gray wolves (Canus lupus)

Group of gray wolves (Canus lupus)

According to Lance Richardson of Slate, the premature delisting of the gray wolf is due to a confluence of a certain complacency about the protected status of the wolf together with “the residual anger towards wolves in the rural West, where influential ranchers have long fought wolves for depredating livestock. Merge that in with the whole Tea Party fervor against [the federal] government, and what you end up with in the state legislatures is this race to the bottom to see who can be more anti-wolf. The biology of the thing gets thrown right out the window.”

Well, the biology. Apex predators play such an important role in ecosystems, above and beyond controlling the population of prey animals. I’m including a concise summary (four minutes long) of just how important wolves have been to the recovery of the Yellowstone Park ecosystem here:

But the ‘biology of the thing’ is also what allows us to keep fearing wolves even if, since we’ve the means to outrun, outgun and outmaneuver them, they’ve had more to fear from us than we’ve had to fear from them. Big predators have been scaring us for millennia, and it appears that all the scientific understanding in the world can’t do away with that in just a couple of generations.

Unfortunately, if the wolf is delisted by the USFWS, the object of our fear may end up truly being only a creature of fairy tales.

Please take a moment to visit Eripe Lupus, a site that is promoting Twitter storm today in support of comments for the USFWS proposal, to learn more.

From: Old French Fairy Tales by  Comtesse de Ségur / Gutenberg.org

From: Old French Fairy Tales by Comtesse de Ségur / Gutenberg.org

Playing Favorites

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red-scale-endangered-rwpAs with anything else, there tend to be trends and favorites when it comes to endangered animal species. The polar bear, the orang-utan, the rhinoceros, the tiger, the lion are the iconic poster animals of conservation. The animals that draw attention, affection, and donations. We like to identify with our favorites, and like to think that our favorite animal says something about who we are as individuals.

They are often the alpha creatures of their ecosystems, the main hunters or the largest animals. Maybe it’s in human nature to associate ourselves with the big guys. And from the standpoint of conservation, it’s not the worst approach. Saving the big guys, by definition, means trying to save all the other elements that support their survival. The ecosystems, the prey, and territory.

And then there are the little guys. The ones that fill a niche between smallest and largest, or look like any number of other, similar animals, or are too little known to achieve star conservation status.

These forgotten species come from all corners of the animal world, from snails to clams to sloths to owls. Or, until recently, the pangolin.

What prompted me to write this today, however, was the small news item that a famous pop singer, Lady Gaga, was bitten by a slow loris that had been brought in as a prop for her music video, which was being shot in Los Angeles.

Loris faces Source: Wikipedia / Lydekker, R. (1904)

Loris faces
Source: Wikipedia / Lydekker, R. (1904)

 There was another recent slow loris story when Rihanna had her photo taken with a captive loris in Phuket, Thailand, last year. I’m pretty sure neither of them knew that the slow loris population is rapidly decreasing, and that whoever held a slow loris up next to them had directly contributed to that decline.

All eight species of the slow loris (genus Nycticebus) are currently listed as vulnerable or endangered, due to their popularity in the pet trade, or to their supposed medicinal values. The slow loris is a small primate that doesn’t travel well, it doesn’t breed well in captivity, and it doesn’t make a good pet. I won’t even go into the unspeakable treatment undergone by the slow loris to make it ‘suitable’ for handling. But it has those adorable eyes.

The total number of animal species on Earth is estimated at 8.7 million.  Source: National Geographic / IUCN

The total number of animal species on Earth is estimated at 8.7 million.
Source: National Geographic / IUCN

I suppose, and hope, that the slow loris will win its conservation advocates, perhaps even aided by these stories, because it is particularly cute and looks more like a toy than like a real animal. With any luck, these stories won’t make more people head out to the markets where the slow loris is sold openly, in spite of its status and the ban in all countries on selling it or any of its parts.

I suspect the multitude of endangered arthropods and molluscs won’t have it as easy. The endangered list grows longer by the day, even as there are efforts in the United States to roll back the Endangered Species Act.

It requires a widening of the gaze to stop playing favorites, changing our habits, and an acknowledgement that not all creatures are simply there for our amusement and consumption.

Wolf Trap

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I was sitting in a very inviting pub the other day, The Rusty Bike, enjoying a plate of locally caught fish and a glass of wine, when the conversation at the next table turned to the real differences between wolves and dogs. What was interesting about the conversation wasn’t its conclusions – because there weren’t any – but the manner of the discourse itself.

The point under dispute was this: While dogs and wolves might be almost genetically identical, are they fundamentally different due to thousands of years of domestication? Two people at the table said yes, dogs are different; one man said no, it’s all just a matter of early training (i.e., given a pup at an early age, any canine can be domesticated).

What struck me was that the fellow arguing for no major differences between wolves and dogs wasn’t interested in real answers – he was interested in winning, nothing more. It didn’t matter that others had excellent arguments, a few verifiable facts at their fingertips, and a willingness to discuss. (And, in fact, they were correct. A longish but fun article on the topic here.)

And so to the current U.S. administration moves to delist the gray wolf as an endangered species in the United States.

After three decades of protection under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has decided to turn the management of wolf protection over to state authorities. In areas where wolves have lost some of their federal protection over recent years, there have been drastic reductions in the wolf population due to widespread hunting. In particular, alpha wolves are prized targets, thus putting entire packs at risk.

An apt illustration of a wolf and its ecosystem.
Image: Anna Emilia via Wolfeyebrows

Another aspect of this is the key role top predators play in ecosystems as a whole. Their elimination tends to have wide and negative ripple effects.

I can’t claim to understand the source and motivation of current anti-wolf sentiment. According to several articles I’ve read, the USFWS intentionally excluded the participation of several wolf specialists – even those who had done most of the federal research on wolf conservation – because none of these scientists agreed that wolves were recovered enough as a species to be de-listed as endangered.

Nonetheless, this plan is moving forward.

Because for whatever reason, this doesn’t seem to be about the facts. It seems to be about winning, and winning only. At least, for those in favor of wolf hunting.

To end this post on a happier note, if you’re ever in Exeter, UK, check out the charming and unpretentious Rusty Bike ‘gastropub’ – a place I’d visit on the regular if I lived anywhere nearby.

More:

Over on Summit County Voice, Bob Berwyn has written a number of excellent articles on the issue of wolf protection and de-listing.

If you want to take action, there will be public hearings held on this issue in three U.S. cities – you can find the dates and locations here.

Any de-listing proposal allows a period of public comment. This has been extended until 11:59 p.m. on 28 October, 2013. Comments can be submitted here. Other comments can be sent here.

Finally, think about taking a minute and signing a petition in support of continuing one of the potential success stories of the Endangered Species Act.