Ask Eartha: What’s all the fuss about endangered species?
March 3, 2017
I recently attended a lecture given by a National Geographic photographer discussing his work on endangered species. Can you explain why it's important to protect endangered species and what individuals can do to help?
— Judy, Breckenridge
Your question is quite timely, Judy, not only because of the lecture you attended, but also because of recent congressional talk of weakening the Endangered Species Act, the federal law that protects threatened and endangered species. Although extinction might not be something we think about on a regular basis, it's a very real problem with serious consequences for human life.
We are living through the sixth massive extinction event in the history of the world. The fifth took place 65 million years ago when the dinosaurs were wiped out. What makes this an "event?" Consider that the natural rate of extinction is about one to five species a year. Right now, we're losing species at 1,000 times that rate — upwards of a dozen species per day. In fact, we're losing species so quickly that many scientists refer to this extinction not as an event, but as a crisis.
And what makes the current extinction particularly unique is that unlike past extinction events caused by meteors, volcanoes, natural climate changes, etc., the current wave of extinctions is overwhelmingly caused by human activity. Habitat loss, over-exploitation, introduction of non-native species, pollution and climate change are all human factors that negatively impact the ability of the natural world to thrive.
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But what's another insect or amphibian vanished from the Earth, right? And what was the dodo good for, anyway?
Well, the answer is that the web of life is complex, and all organisms play roles in their home ecosystems, however small. Biodiversity, defined as the variety of life on Earth, is important to the healthy functioning of ecosystems. And we humans, even if we don't realize it, depend upon ecosystem services for our own health and livelihoods.
Ecosystems provide us with important services, like water purification, soil formation, erosion and flood control, coastal protection and pollination. In fact, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature estimates that the monetary value humans receive from goods and services provided by ecosystems each year is $33 trillion.
These services are the result of all species in an ecosystem working together, and studies show that ecosystem functioning decreases as the number of species in the biological community decreases. Think of it like a stock portfolio: The more diversified your account, the better you can weather the ups and downs of the market.
The same is true for ecosystems — the more variety of species, the more resilient and stable an ecosystem will be. So, it's important to conserve nature not only for nature's sake, but also our own.
Wondering how to support biodiversity in your own ecological community? It's not as daunting a task as you might think. You can visit the Colorado Parks and Wildlife website to learn about endangered and threatened species in Colorado; call your Congressional representatives to ask that they support conservation legislation and wildlife-friendly land management practices; never purchase products made from derivatives of endangered or threatened species; purchase products made with recycled or sustainably harvested content to avoid habitat destruction; and finally, you can take matters into your own hands by making sure your backyard is part of the solution.
Across the globe, scientists and keen observers have noted significant decreases in global pollinator populations over the past few decades. At risk due to exposure to pesticides and loss of habitat, over 30 pollinators native to the U.S. are endangered.
But you can help by providing a welcoming backyard habitat for pollinators. Now is a great time to research pollen-rich, pollinator-friendly native plants and to purchase wildflower mixes to sow in springtime. Equally important, avoid using pesticides on your lawn or garden as these hurt pollinators and other beneficial insects. For guidance, the Xerces Society, an invertebrate conservation group, has a website full of information about gardening for pollinators.
Species loss, especially when it doesn't involve a cuddly animal like the giant panda or the gray wolf, can be an abstract concept because we aren't faced with it every day, yet extinction can have a profound impact on our lives.
After all, without pollinators, our diets would be pretty boring. It's up to us to be stewards of the natural environment to ensure the healthy functioning of our local and global ecosystems, so that all who reside in them — ourselves included — are free to thrive. It might still be winter, but I'm already looking forward to planting a beautiful flower garden full of colorful native plants and buzzing with biodiversity.
Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to sustainable food, waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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