Endangered animals are “vicious,” “chicken-sized,” “unlikable,” and/or “insignificant.” Their genetic authenticity is questionable — subspecies? what’s a subspecies? — and their fitness debatable: Manatees, bison and pronghorns come to mind — all beasts that have not adapted to the trappings of contemporary man.
To read many popular accounts about the animals that form a growing cadre of the officially vanishing, you might conclude that it is their fault. Moreover, you would discover that these antediluvian critters attract numerous radicals and lawyers seeking to foist their continued presence upon us, stalling the entire economic regime of the United States.
What’s a country to do?
One proposal is to weaken the Endangered Species Act (ESA), a 41-year-old law signed by that liberal environmentalist president, Richard Millhouse Nixon. The ESA, it has been alleged, is invoked by nominal allies of the desert pupfish, Karner blue butterfly, and spotted owl simply to quash all development because ... well, because.
Compared to a new coalbed methane field, an agribusiness plot, or a tract housing development, of what use is, say, an Amargosa vole? Most people probably don’t even know what a vole is, let alone what its use might be. And, anyway, aren’t there other voles? Why should we care about the Amargosa one? Even by vole standards, its body is stubby, its ears embarrassingly small. When it was thought to be extinct, no one missed it much.
Naturally, radicals do not fret just about mammals (some of which are, to be honest, cute and furry). They also support birds. Lots of Hawaiian species you’ve never seen or heard of demand notice along with two sorts of eiders and two types of cranes. Wouldn’t one eider and one crane be plenty for any nation?
Here in Montana we are fighting to keep the greater sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) off the endangered list, a cause that our own Steve Daines has championed to stop “federal overreach” and “abuse” that “fringe groups” use to severely restrict energy extraction, agriculture and the “outdoor recreation industry” — this according to Congressman Daines’ website. It is odd that a bird whose presence is a marvel of adaptation, whose spring displays are amazing spectacles that draw photographers and other outdoor enthusiasts, and whose worth as a source of food has been recognized for thousands of years should somehow be a grave threat now. Hmm. Are humans themselves just less adaptable these days?
Clams, crustaceans, insects and plants are all protected by the ESA. It is, of course, very unlikely that fringe groups have a soft spot in their hearts for the purple catspaw mussel. They undoubtedly simply exploit it to stop economic progress. In fact, these fringe groups, as Congressman Daines calls them, have managed, according to the Forest Service, to halt 34 development projects (out of 100,000) in the past 15 years alone.
As people like Congressman Daines continue their push to weaken or reform the ESA, species continue to become extinct. In its present form, the law seems unable, then, to fulfill its purpose. Even if most animals on the list boast continued existence, it has been unable to stop the tide of extinction. Millions of dollars later, and what do we have to show for it? An extinct Caribbean monk seal no one really needed anyway.
Scientists (a fringe group?) claim that humans are causing the “Sixth Great Extinction.” This means that animals and plants are succumbing at a rate much greater than has been normal (excepting five other extinction episodes) in earth’s history. If this is true, then, according to the Center for Biological Diversity (another one of those notorious “fringe” groups), 30 percent to 50 percent of all species will be extinct by 2050.
Of course, we don’t just have 30 percent to 50 percent of species living in isolation. Keystone species, as they have been called, maintain the health and diversity of entire ecosystems. Some creatures are important pollinators, and their worth is, thus, quantifiable. Some plants and animals contribute to the cleanliness of our marshes and rivers. Others hold the keys to pharmaceutical innovation. A few are, admittedly, simply unique.
There is no guarantee, of course, that we ourselves will squeak through among the 50-70 percent to survive past 2050, is there?
So let’s put things in perspective. Thirty-six years from now, when we look up from our new super-intelligent phones, we may notice that the Bakken is long played out and that food and water are rather scarce as fisheries collapse and aquifers shrink or become contaminated. Air? Who knows? And what of the sage grouse?
“Throwing money at problems” like education, science, and preserving the earth’s biomes never works — or so we’re told. The only people who really flourish from those cash bombardments are coal, oil and gas companies. Still, it just may be that people like Congressman Daines will wish they had actually strengthened the ESA and shoveled billions toward putting the brakes on species extinctions. They may regret not listing as threatened both Centrocercus urophasianus and Homo sapiens sapiens.
Cara Chamberlain teaches English at Rocky Mountain College.