As dead as a dodo. Will that be the future of every wild species on Earth? Most people would vociferously oppose such a fate, yet the Earth is heading toward just such a mega-extinction, and action to prevent it seems bogged down. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, of the 45,000 species worldwide that biologists have evaluated, one in five mammals, one in eight birds, and one in three reptiles and amphibians are threatened.
Biological diversity is in crisis. Even a conservative estimate of global species loss puts the extinction rate at 100 times higher than natural levels. Some biologists believe it could be as high as 1,000 times or more, resulting in the loss of a majority of all species by the end of the 21st century. This is biocide on a massive scale.
While governments concentrate on economic growth, extinction creeps ever closer. Here in the Fraser estuary, extirpations (local extinctions of species) have already taken place. Since the late 1800s, Roosevelt elk, grey wolves, western spotted skunks, snowshoe hares, red foxes, and most cougars and bears have gone. Douglas squirrels are confined to a few woodland parks and have been replaced in suburbs by the introduced eastern grey squirrel. Southern resident orcas are on the endangered list. Horned larks, burrowing owls, western bluebirds, nighthawks, cuckoos, and meadowlarks no longer nest. Sandhill cranes are down to just a few pairs.
Hunters remember flocks of 200 or 300 band-tailed pigeons; now it is rare to see more than 12 or 15 together. Oregon spotted frogs have been extirpated, and few red-legged frogs or painted turtles remain. Instead, non-native, introduced species, like bullfrogs and red-eared slider turtles, have taken over wetlands. Forty percent of the plant species in the lower Fraser Valley’s landscape are non-native, and once-common flowers like blue larkspur and pink fawn lily are now rare.
We are facing a future in an impoverished and diminished world. Less biodiversity means a landscape with, at best, a large numbers of adaptable generalists, like the roof rat, and very few specialists, such as the pileated woodpecker or long-toed salamander. The implications for the biosphere, that narrow band of livable land, water, and air around our planet, are unknown. Thousands of species remain unstudied; we do not know their place or function in the ecosystem.
For health, philosophical, cultural, religious, and aesthetic reasons, we cannot afford to lose the animals and plants that share our beautiful planet. People are not removed from the biosphere; we are an integral part of it, dependent on plants and animals, water, and air for our very life. The death of biodiversity will surely mean the end of the human race too.
Everyone hates doom and gloom, so are there solutions? Jane Goodall believes there are. In her new book, Hope for Animals and Their World: How Endangered Species Are Being Rescued From the Brink, she describes many examples of restoration from around the world. In British Columbia, we can point to success stories like the trumpeter swan, brought back from the edge of extinction since the 1930s, and the humpback whale slowly returning to the Georgia Strait. Similarly, a limit on hunting is helping the brant, a small marine goose, to recover its numbers at Boundary Bay. Snow geese which winter in the Fraser River estuary are an endangered population in Russia yet are now flourishing, and bald eagles have made a huge comeback since the 1960s.
In most cases, all it took was awareness of the problem, action by committed people and governments, and a will to succeed. The focus on climate change should not obscure the need for action on species protection. As renowned biologist E.O. Wilson reasons, “If you save the living environment, you will automatically save the physical environment. But if you only try to save the physical environment, you will lose them both.”
Goodall believes that people worldwide are beginning to realize their responsibility for the environment. Her optimism depends on this dawning awakening and the strength of the human spirit. Let’s hope she is right.
Anne Murray is the author of two books on Lower Mainland nature and ecological history, both published by Nature Guides B.C.