On Earth, Every Day is Endangered Species Day

Almost nobody wants species to go extinct, in fact, 90% of Americans approve of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) including 82% of Conservatives, and 70% oppose reducing protections for threatened species. So it should come as no surprise that Congressional Republicans (with the support of the Trump administration) are planning on introducing legislation that would drastically reduce the acts ability to save species from extinction.

The reasons given are equally predictable: it hurts farmers (it doesn’t), it hurts local economies (wrong again), it curtails the expansion of extractive industries (good). But far and away the most ridiculous excuse is that of Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman John Barrasso (R-WY), who said, citing that only 3% of species have been removed from the list due to recovery: “As a doctor, if I admit 100 patients to the hospital, and only three recover enough under my treatment to be discharged, I would deserve to lose my medical license”.

The metaphor is, of course, flawed.

Studies have shown that 99% of species listed on the ESA have been saved from extinction, and that 90% have begun to show signs of recovery. The average time a species has been on the list is only 15.5 years, hardly enough time to return a heavily reduced species back to viable levels after decades or centuries of degradation. The longer a species stays on the list, it should be mentioned, the more likely it is to be recovering. (For a great write-up on ESA myths and facts, check out Laura Wilcox’s piece in Grizzly Times)

So what Barrasso really wants to do is revoke the medical licences of doctors who save 99% of their patients from death, at least 90% of whom are happily recovering from their trauma in their hospital (and taking a reasonable amount of time to do so), simply because only 3% of those patients have been discharged so far.

Extinction is Forever

The primary blow this new legislation will deal to the ESA is in making threatened species and critical habitats harder to list. This may not seem like the end of the world, but the average time between a species being proposed and being listed is a jaw-dropping 12 years! For at least 44 of those species, it was literally the end of the world, as they went extinct while they languished on the waiting list.

Extinctions are natural but the current extinction crisis is not. The widely accepted figure is that species are going extinct at one thousand times the normal “background rate” of extinction, due to human causes. It’s the dinosaurs all over again, only global industrial capitalist civilization is the asteroid. The World Wildlife Fund and The Zoological Society of London predict that by 2020, a scant 3 years from now, vertebrate populations will have fallen 67% from their 1970 levels. That’s 2/3 of our closest relatives, who have lived and thrived with us on this planet for at least the past 12,000 years, gone forever, and at our hand.

From Ceballos, Ehrlich, Barnosky, García, Pringle and Palme, Science Advances 19 Jun 2015: http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/1/5/e1400253

The importance of doing everything we can do to save life on this planet cannot be overstated. Because of the sorry state we already find ourselves in, without emergency intervention, many species will simply continue to dwindle until they are gone. This is why legislation like the ESA needs to be strengthened and expanded not attacked and reduced.

Life: More than Simply Surviving

While it is a powerful tool, and one we cannot afford to throw away, the ESA on its own won’t solve the extinction crisis.

The number one threat to wildlife is habitat destruction and degradation, resulting in up to 80% of extinctions. Wildlife simply can’t survive as long as our culture keeps treating their homes as nothing more than exploitable resources.

One of the key concepts in ecology is what’s called the species-area relationship, coined in 1967 by E.O. Wilson and Robert MacArthur. I’m assuming no one is reading this article to learn any math, so I’ll leave a more detailed reference here and suffice it to say that law states that the larger the “island” (in this case, protected area surrounded by human infrastructure unsuitable for wildlife habitat) the more species can survive there. As you reduce the area of viable habitat, species begin to go extinct at a more-or-less predictable rate. In addition to this, there are many species, especially large carnivores which simply require a huge amount of area per individual in order to survive. Grizzly Bears, for instance, begin to die off when they have less than 4 million acres available to live in.

So what’s the answer? Expanding protected wildlife habitat. In the US that means more and bigger National Parks (and to a lesser extent other federally protected areas).

Precisely because large wide-ranging carnivores require so much land, and because of the other ways they regulate ecosystems, conservationists refer to these species as “umbrella species” — by protecting enough wild habitat for them to live in, we end up protecting hundreds of other species and critical ecosystems by proxy. And expanding federally protected land is a sort of “umbrella issue” itself — in addition to protecting our wild neighbors, protected lands enhance water health, protect crop diversity, provide spiritual and cultural fulfillment and yes, they even have economic benefits.

So take some time today to tell your representatives you oppose the “Modernizing the Endangered Species Act” and are against the current attack on federally protected lands. Support the groups out there working tirelessly to protect our wild neighbors, particularly the Center for Biological Diversity, which has already brought up lawsuits against the stupid border wall, the attack on public lands and the Keystone XL Pipeline. If you’re really awesome, get involved with groups participating in direct action campaigns to stop the destruction of life on Earth.

I want to end this piece with a somewhat lengthy quote from conservationist and co-founder of Earth First! and the Wildlands Network, Dave Foreman, which brings me to tears while redoubling my conviction in the fight for life on Earth:

“Only 150 years ago, the Great Plains were a vast, waving sea of grass stretching from the Chihuahuan Desert of Mexico to the boreal forest of Canada, from the oak-hickory forests of the Ozarks to the Rocky Mountains. Bison blanketed the plains-it has been estimated that 60 million of the huge, shaggy beasts moved across the grassy ocean in seasonal migrations. Throngs of Pronghorn and Elk also filled this Pleistocene landscape. Packs of Gray Wolves and numerous Grizzly Bears followed the tremendous herds.
In 1830, John James Audubon sat on the banks of the Ohio River for three days as a single flock of Passenger Pigeons darkened the sky from horizon to horizon. He estimated that there were several billion birds in that flock. It has been said that a squirrel could travel from the Atlantic seaboard to the Mississippi River without touching the ground so dense was the deciduous forest of the East.
At the time of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, an estimated 100,000 Grizzlies roamed the western half of what is now the United States. The howl of the wolf was ubiquitous. The California Condor sailed the sky from the Pacific Coast to the Great Plains. Salmon and sturgeon populated the rivers. Ocelots, Jaguars, and Jaguarundis prowled the Texas brush and Southwestern mountains and mesas. Bighorn Sheep ranged the mountains of the Rockies, the Great Basin, the Southwest, and the Pacific Coast. Ivory-billed Woodpeckers and Carolina Parakeets filled the steamy forests of the Deep South. The land was alive.
East of the Mississippi, giant Tulip Poplars, American Chestnuts, oaks, hickories, and other trees formed the most diverse temperate deciduous forest in the world. In New England, White Pines grew to heights rivaling the Brobdingnagian conifers of the far West. On the Pacific Coast, redwood, hemlock, Douglas-fir, spruce, cedar, fir, and pine formed the grandest forest on Earth.
In the space of a few generations we have laid waste to paradise. The Tallgrass Prairie has been transformed into a corn factory where wildlife means the exotic pheasant. The Shortgrass Prairie is a grid of carefully fenced cow pastures and wheatfields. The Passenger Pigeon is no more; the last one died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. The endless forests of the East are tame woodlots. With few exceptions, the only virgin deciduous forest there is in tiny museum pieces of hundreds of acres. Fewer than one thousand Grizzlies remain. The last three condors left in the wild were captured and imprisoned in the Los Angeles Zoo. (An expensive reintroduction effort has since been started.) Except in northern Minnesota and northwestern Montana, wolves are known as scattered individuals drifting across the Canadian and Mexican borders. Four percent of the peerless Redwood Forest remains and the ancient forests of Oregon are all but gone. The tropical cats have been shot and poisoned from our Southwestern borderlands. The subtropical Eden of Florida has been transmogrified into hotels and citrus orchards. Domestic cattle have grazed bare and radically altered the composition of the grassland communities of the West, displacing Elk, Moose, Bighorn Sheep, and Pronghom and leading to the virtual extermination of Grizzly Bear, Gray Wolf, Cougar, and other “varmints.” Dams choke most of the continent’s rivers and streams.” (Source)