Since life began on this planet, countless creatures have come andgone--rendered extinct by naturally changing physical and biologicalconditions.
If extinction is sometimes part of the natural order, and if manyother species remain, some people ask: "Why save endangered species?What makes these animals and plants so special that money and effortshould be spent to conserve them?"
Congress addressed these questions in the preamble to theEndangered Species Act of 1973, recognizing that endangered species offish, wildlife, and plants "are of aesthetic, ecological, educational,historical, recreational, and scientific value to the Nation and itspeople." In this statement, Congress was summarizing a number ofconvincing arguments advanced by scientists, conservationists, andothers who are greatly concerned by the disappearance of uniquecreatures.
Unfortunately, we can no longer attribute the accelerating declineof our wild animals and plants to "natural" processes. Biologists knowthat today's danger to wildlife most often results from habitatdegradation, environmental pollution, the introduction of exotic(non-native) organisms, and exploitation--all generally as a directresult of human activities.
Although conservation efforts have begun in recent years, mankindis still exterminating entire species at an ever-increasing rate. Sincethe Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620, more than 500 species,subspecies, and varieties of our Nation's plants and animals have becomeextinct--lost forever. (By contrast, during the 3,000 years of thePleistocene Ice Age, all of North America lost only about three speciesevery 100 years.) The situation today is even worse in other parts ofthe world.
The Colorado River system once contained some of the most turbulentwaters on earth, and fishes like the humpback chub evolved unique shapesto gain stability in the rough currents. Today, after construction ofover 20 dams, only a few short stretches of this unique habitat remains.The humpback chub is now endangered.
The Benefits of Natural Diversity
No creature exists in a vacuum. All living things are part of acomplex, delicately balanced network called the biosphere. It iscomposed of ecosystems, the study of which includes the set ofinterrelationships between plants and animals and their physicalenvironment. The removal of a single species can set off a chainreaction affecting many others. It has been estimated, for example, thata disappearing plant can take with it up to 30 other species, includinginsects, higher animals, and even other plants. The full significance ofan extinction is not always readily apparent; much remains to belearned, and the full long-term impacts are difficult to predict.
Freshwater mollusks like this endangered Higgin's Eye mussel feedby filtering particles out of water. Toxic substances accumulate in thebody tissues, making these animals valuable as natural monitors of waterquality.
Medicine. Each living thing contains a unique reservoir of geneticmaterial that has evolved over eons of time, and cannot be retrieved orduplicated if lost. Scientists have partially investigated so far only asmall fraction of the world's species and have begun to unravel a few oftheir chemical secrets to determine possible benefits to mankind. Nomatter how small or obscure a species, it could one day be of direct aidto all of us. It was "only" a fungus that gave us penicillin, andcertain plants have yielded substances used in drugs to treat heartdisease, cancer, and a variety of other serious illnesses. At least aquarter of all prescriptions written annually in the United Statescontain chemicals discovered in plants and animals. If these organismshad been destroyed before their chemistries were known, their secretswould have died with them.
Agriculture. Many seemingly insignificant forms of life arebeginning to show important utilitarian benefits in areas such asagriculture. Some farmers are beginning to use insects and other animalsthat compete with or pry on certain crop pests, as well as using plantscontaining natural-toxin compounds that repel harmful insects. These arecalled "biological controls," and in many cases they are a safe,effective, and less expensive alternative to synthetic chemicals.
Thomas Jefferson once wrote that "the greatest service which can berendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture, especiallya breadgrain." It has been estimated that there are almost 80,000species of edible plants, of which fewer than 20 produce 90 percent ofthe world's food. If under-utilized species are conserved, they couldhelp to feed growing populations. One grain native to the Great LakesStates, Indian wild-rice, is superior in protein to most domesticatedrice, and its increasing commercial production is earning millions ofdollars annually. Crossing it with a related but endangered species,Texas wild-rice, could perhaps result in a strain adaptable to otherregions. Plants collectors are now seeking out remaining wild strains ofmany common crops, such as wheat and corn, for work on new hybrids moreresistant to crop diseases, pests, and marginal climatic conditions.
Industry is also increasingly making use of wild plants. Twospecies in particular that show important potential are the jojoba andthe guayule. The jojoba produces an oil with many unique properties thatare suitable for a variety of industrial processes. In the past, theonly comparable oil was derived from the sperm whale, but overharvestinghas brought this great marine mammal to the brink of extinction. Theguayule is a shrub containing high amounts of natural rubber, as well asa resin rich in other valuable substances. Both plants grow in thedeserts of the southwestern United States, giving economic value tolands not suitable for other agricultural purposes, and they couldprovide domestic sources of products that would otherwise have to beimported.
Environmental Monitors. Many individual species are uniquelyimportant as indicators of environmental quality. The rapid decline inbald eagles and peregirne falcons was a dramatic warning of the dangersof DDT--a strong, once widely used pesticide that accumulates in bodytissues. (Its effect on these birds was to hamper fertility andegg-hatching success.) In another example, certain plants, such as theeastern white pine, are particularly good indicators of excess ozone,sulfur dioxide, and other air pollutants. If it were not for specieslike these, we may not have known about the effects of some contaminantsuntil more damage was done.
The Texas wild-rice could someday be used to make other strainsmore productive.
Aside from the more concrete reasons for preserving endangeredspecies, moral considerations are often mentioned. Many people believethat every creature, after adapting for thousands or even millions ofyears to fit a constantly changing environment, has an intrinsic rightto exist. Exterminating other forms of life, they say, would not only beshortsighted, but wrong--especially since the species could never bereplaced. Mankind would also be the loser; being accustomed to diversityin nature, the quality of human life would diminished.
Ecosystems Under Pressure
Hawaii is a classic example of an ecosystem unbalanced by man. In1794, Western explorers introduced cattle and sheep to the islands, andlater horses and goats, which were allowed to multiply and run wild.During the 1800's herds of these and other livestock animals moved intothe forests and, by destroying many native plants through overgrazing,degraded the habitat of birds that, in isolation over centuries, hadadapted to this delicate island ecosystem. Accidentally-introduced ratsbecame serious predators of both sea birds and forest birds, and themisguided important of the mongoose as a pest control only aggravatedthe problem. Human settlement and agriculture, meanwhile, continue toclaim wildlife habitat. Today, 29 of Hawaii's endemic birds and its only2 native mammals are listed as endangered; over 800 of its native plantsalso are considered jeopardized or possibly extinct, largely because ofovergrazing and competition with introduced flora. At least 65 speciesof animals and 45 plants have disappeared forever.
Not only island environments are under pressure. A portion of theSan Marcos River system, in southcentral Texas, contains the onlyhabitat for four endangered and threatened species: the fountain darterand San Marcos gambusia (fishes), the San Marcos salamander, and theTexas wild-rice. These organisms have evolved over time to specifichabitat elements, and disruption of the fragile aquatic ecosystem couldresult in their extinction. The precarious status of these and manyother rare species is an indication of how little original habitatremains.
Under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the U.S. Fish andWildlife Service has primary responsibility to preserve not onlyjeopardized life, but also the natural resources on which life depends.The condition of plant and animal species, then, is a gauge to measurehow much of our world still supports a healthy environment.
More knowledge of complete ecosystems can help us to betterunderstand, and protect, the requirements of all life--including thehuman species.
Endangered means there is still time, but extinction is forever.
The Kauai'akialoa was once considered common, but it may now beextinct due to overgrazing, exotic plants, and introduced predators.
How You Can Help
The conservation and recovery of threatened and endangered speciesis a tremendous and ever-increasing challenge. Through the efforts ofthe U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and its cooperative programs withsome States, other governmental agencies, and private conservationgroups, many jeopardized creatures now have a better chance of survival.But the assistance of everyone--including private citizens andorganizations--is essential; one need not be a scientist or a governmentofficial to help.
Here is what you can do:
* Most States have programs to protect rare animals and plants. Write your State fish and game/natural resources department to find out which species are rare in your area, and what is being done to conserve them.
* Visit one of the nearly 400 National Wildlife Refuges near you, where environmental education specialists describe resident wildlife, its needs, and management. Many refuges are now developing programs to encourage volunteer work by the public, including such activities as bird counting and habitat clean-up.
* Don't buy exotic or wild animals as pets, or plants not of cultivated origin. They are often very difficult to keep, and may be protected species.
* Report violations of conservation laws to your local Federal or State authorities.
* Before travelling overseas, write the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Publications Unit, Washington, D.C. 20240, for a copy of "Facts About Federal Wildlife Laws," and lists of protected species, to learn what items cannot be imported.
* Learn what you can about wildlife and its problems. Among other sources, you can consult:
1. the National Marine Fisheries Service, Department of Commerce, Washington, D.C. 20235, about whales, seals, and other marine species.
2. the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, Department of Agriculture, Washington, D.C. 20250, about importing or exporting pets and Federally regulated plant species.
3. reference books and directories at your local library; especially useful is the Conservation Directory published by the National Wildlife Federation.
Once thought to number about 15 billion, with flocks that wouldblock out the sun for hours, the passenger pigeon was considered aninexhaustible resource. But today it can be found only as a silentexhibit in a few museums. The same fate awaits many other animals andplants unless we act quickly.
Cover: The peregrine falcon, a magnificent raptor that can dive forits prey at speeds up to 200 miles per hour, pointed out the dangers ofDDT when the poison brought two subspecies to the brink of extinction.
As the Nation's principal conservation agency, the Department ofthe Interior has responsibility for most of our nationally owned publiclands and natural resources. This includes fostering the wisest use ofour land and water resources, protecting our fish and wildlife,preserving the environmental and cultural values of our national parksand historical places, and providing for the enjoyment of life throughoutdoor recreation. The Department assesses our energy and mineralresources and works to assure that their development is in the bestinterests of all our people. The Department also has a majorresponsibility for American Indian reservation communities and forpeople who live in island territories under U.S. administration.
Written by: U.S. Department of the Interior - U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - Federal Consumer Information Center
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