As human activities push native species to extinction at thousands of times the historic rate, it has never been clearer that Americans need to recalibrate the balance between our own needs and those of the rest of the planet.
A quick inventory of some of the once-common but now greatly imperiled native animals across the West offers a crash course in the cost of our politically driven refusal in recent years to aggressively use the tools of the Endangered Species Act to save plants and animals and the habitats we share with them.
With only a few thousand remaining, lesser prairie chickens have now lost 90 percent of their historic habitat, the majority of it to oil and gas drilling and ranching activities.
Sage grouse once numbered several million but have now been reduced to fewer than 200,000 thanks to the unchecked energy and agricultural development of their habitat.
Due largely to unbridled energy development of their habitat, the dunes sagebrush lizard, which occupies less than 2 percent of the oil- and gas-rich Permian Basin, is now one of the nation’s most imperiled lizards, in part because of outsourcing of a voluntary ‘conservation plan’ by the Texas comptroller to a private organization run by industry lobbyists.
Nowhere is the imbalance of human activity and the needs of a highly imperiled native species on more continuous display than here in New Mexico, a state that’s now home to about 2 million humans, 1.3 million cattle and, at last count, only 46 Mexican wolves.
We’ve long known that wolves are integral to the health of their ecosystems, through providing carrion for scavengers such as badgers, eagles and bears, and limiting elk browsing of cottonwood saplings along streams.
But due to a Mexican gray wolf reintroduction program structured largely to serve the livestock industry, in the 16 years of the program’s existence the government has shot 13 wolves and accidentally killed 19 more as a consequence of capture, primarily to protect livestock. Other Mexican wolves have been held in captivity and never bred. Only three wolves have been released from a captive-breeding facility since 2008.
As a result, only 83 Mexican wolves could be counted in Arizona and New Mexico in January, and they are inbred and consequently suffer from lower reproductive rates, with just five breeding pairs. Yet the ever-pliant U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposes allowing even more wolves to be killed and will hold a public hearing on its proposal and other alternatives in Truth or Consequences on Aug. 13.
Those who would contend the Endangered Species Act needs to be better balanced to meet the needs of humans should consider these three numbers: 50/40/50.
- 50 percent of Earth’s fresh water is now used by humans every year.
- 40 percent of the planet is now devoted to human food production.
- 50 percent of the planet’s land mass has now been transformed for human use.
As we add nearly a quarter of a million humans to the planet every day in our push toward a population of 8 billion, the evidence is mounting that we’re losing the battle against unbridled habitat destruction and human-caused climate change.
What we’ve learned over the four decades since the passage of the Endangered Species Act is that its robust use helps us to balance our own short-term needs with the long-term environmental and economic interests of our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
And we’ve learned that without the act, which has prevented the extinction of 99 percent of the species it protects, we would have no balance at all.
Michael Robinson works for the Center for Biological Diversity in Silver City, and is author of “Predatory Bureaucracy: The Extermination of Wolves and the Transformation of the West” (University Press of Colorado, 2005).