We humans are able to rapidly adjust to changes in our environment. If we were forced out of our lodging or off our land most of us could move to another place that suits us. We’d immediately have some idea of what possibilities lay in the next neighborhood over or across town. Even in another state. We know where grocery stores can be found, full of food and beverages. Because of automobiles, we can get there fast, too. Under ordinary circumstances, we can quickly locate retailers of everything we need for survival, even in a strange city. But what of animals?
When the habitat they’re adapted to disappears, where can wildlife go? Except for flying critters, imagine the challenge of relocating to suitable habitat when your visual vantage point is only three feet above the ground, like that of a fox. Or just a few inches, like that of a chipmunk. Which direction should they go? Can they find food before they starve? Or a safe place to rest? And water — where’s water? Wrong decisions may mean death. The familiar place they were forced out of was utterly familiar: The best hiding spot is under the old log behind the bushes. The creek is just around the bend to the left. Food is on the ground under the fruit trees that stand behind the small forest of pine trees on the other side of the hill.
Some animals find suitable new locations. Others adapt to a new way of life, as the Northern Raccoon and Virginia Opossum have done so very well. But, some animals never find their way to safety and die. Others can’t adjust, their needs are so unalterable, they can’t substitute, say, a forest of pines for a forest of deciduous trees. Some bird species won’t breed except in a specific habitat — when their habitat is destroyed, one-by-one they just die off.
What causes habitat loss? Urbanization and development, timber cutting, agriculture, introduction of non-native species and reservoirs. This has effectively reduced the numbers of native species (plants, as well as animals), drastically in some cases. Native ecosystems, which developed their delicate balance over eons of time, are disappearing.
Between 1982 and 1997, 22 million acres in the U.S. were deforested. The Pacific Northwest Research Station in Corvallis, Ore., projects that in the next 50 years more than 50 million more acres of U.S. forests will be converted to developed uses, such as houses, urban areas and infrastructure. Between 1982 and 2007 more than 23 million acres of farmland were lost to development¹ — an area the size of Indiana. Every year 3 million more acres of forests, grassland, farmland and wildlife habitat — an area the size of Connecticut — is dredged, drained, cleared, paved over, built upon or otherwise made uninhabitable for much of its historic wildlife.
The rate of development appears to have gone berserk, doubling in the past decade and outstripping our population growth. For example, Chicago suburbs saw a 46 percent increase in land consumption, while its population only grew four percent. What does this mean for wildlife? Just what you would surmise, and worse.
Threatened and endangered species
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), whose stated mission is to help “conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats,” maintains a list of threatened and endangered U.S. species. It currently lists 93 threatened or endangered birds. These include species of warbler, tern, thrush, vireo, quail, the Whooping Crane and the majestic Bald Eagle. Right now there are also 85 mammals on the USFWS Threatened and Endangered list (note: link is always very, very slow to load). You might think these mammals are all unknown, tiny, inconspicuous, inconsequential species. But some of the animals precariously straddling the cusp of extinction include species of whales, wolves, squirrels, rabbits, pumas, deer, caribou, foxes and jaguars, as well as the Florida Panther and others. (It’s important to note that every species is key to maintaining an eco-balance where it lives, no matter how generally obscure they may seem.)
A states-eye view
Looking at some of the states:² California has 157 species of animals on its (2011) state list. Florida has 133 animals on its (2012) state list and USFWS lists 66 animals in Texas (2012). Kansas, North Dakota and Vermont have the fewest threatened or endangered species.
This trend is not irreversible…yet. There are many ways to halt it. Creating a backyard wildlife habitat is one way. Meet some of the endangered species:
Attwater’s Prairie Chicken
The Attwater’s Prairie Chicken (Tympanuchus cupido attwateri), a ground-dwelling grouse, is nearly extinct due to conversion of its coastal tallgrass prairie environment into farmland. Less than a hundred years ago, one million Attwater’s inhabited six million acres in Texas and Louisiana. As their habitat was taken acre-by-acre eventually they had nowhere to go. The Attwater’s was extinct in Louisiana by 1919. By 1937 their population was down to 8,700 individuals in Texas. There now remains less than one percent of its original habitat and barely 50 Attwater’s are alive in the wild in spite of an ongoing captive breeding and release program.
The Ocelot (Leopardus pardalis), a spotted and striped wildcat, twice the size of a house cat, is nearly extinct in the U.S. because of the loss of sub-tropical woodlands it calls home. What was once three million acres of coastal prairies and chaparral thickets has been reduced by 95 percent. An estimated 100 non-captive Ocelots are all that remain, all of them in Texas. Most of the Ocelots live on the 45,000-acre Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge near Bayview, Texas.
Territorial animals, young Ocelots go in search of a suitable territory of their own when they leave their mothers at about one year of age. Unfortunately, every year several of them are hit by cars as they cross roads within the refuge. The Ocelot requires a very wild, naturalized environment to survive and most of the area around the refuge has been stripped of vegetation. There’s no place left for them to go. In another example of destructiveness in the name of progress, the state of Texas plans to build a road for higher speed traffic through the refuge to shorten the trip between an airport and South Padre Island.
The Whooping Crane (Grus americana) story is another tale of a large population that fell precipitously because of human activity — in their case, habitat destruction along with over-hunting. Fossil evidence shows that the Whooping Crane dates back several million years and lived across the entire eastern half of the U.S., north into Canada and south into Mexico. However, by the 1890s most Whooping Cranes had been killed or driven away. The last nesting pair in the U.S. was seen in 1939 and by 1941 there were only 16 birds left in the flock. By 1950 the Whooping Crane was gone completely from within our borders.
Experimental captive-breeding programs are ongoing, and a new flock was successfully re-introduced in 2001, bringing the number of flocks to two. Still only about two hundred birds are in the wild. The world’s only natural flock of Whooping Cranes summers in Canada and winters in Texas, migrating 2,500 miles each way every year. Their long-term survival is still not assured. During migration, which takes several weeks each way, they face weather hardships, illegal shooting, power lines, cell phone towers, predators, disease, and the continuing destruction and pollution of their winter refuge.
The Black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes) is considered one of our most endangered mammals, but also a bit of a rare success story. Once considered extinct, a group of seven was discovered in Wyoming and now there are as many as 500 in the wild, introduced through captive breeding programs.
They still remain fragile, however. As it turns out, their predominant prey, Black-tailed Prairie Dogs, have been eradicated by landowners and government-sponsored poisoning programs to near extinction themselves, with only two percent of their original abundance remaining. Less than two percent of the ferret’s prairie habitat remains, and it’s highly fragmented. This has resulted in a wide dispersal of the prairie dog towns, making it difficult for the ferrets to find them.
The population of Red wolves (Canis rufus), beautiful carnivores once common throughout the southeastern U.S., was down to 17 individuals by the 1980s due to habitat loss and predator eradication programs. The USFWS captured the remaining wolves at that time and began a captive breeding program. There are now about 100 wolves back in the wild, many of them in refuges and other protected areas. Another 207 are held in 38 captive breeding facilities across the U.S. Without these safeguards, the Red wolf would quickly fade into history.
You may wonder how the Gray bat (Myotis grisescens), a cave dweller, could possibly be affected by human encroachment.
Unlikely as it seems, the bat is endangered throughout its range, including Missouri, Kentucky and Tennessee, and nine other states. What led to its decline is the opening of many of the bats’ caves to the public, leading to excessive harassment and loss of their young, disturbances from cave exploration, and the flooding of caves through dam-building. The Gray bat had declined by an estimated 50 percent by the year 2000, most of the loss occurring during the last part of the twentieth century.
Have you ever seen a turtle smile? No, of course not, because they’re physically unable to smile. This lack of facial expression in reptiles, amphibians and fishes, along with their hairless bodies, gives them an alien look most of us don’t relate to. It puts us off a bit.
They lack the “cuddly” charisma of other animals and we tend to be less concerned about them. Yet, they’re endangered, too. In fact, they represent a disproportionate number of species on the USFWS list — 40 reptiles, 23 amphibians and 144 species of U.S. fishes.
Northern Species on the list include sea turtles, frogs, salmon and trout.U.S. fishes are especially hard hit. Rather than loss of habitat, their numbers are falling because of misuse of their habitat — pollution, climate change, blockage of migration, negative consequences of water management and, in some cases, nonnative species which are decimating populations.
Worldwide, an estimated 90 percent of all large ocean fishes are now gone, the result of overfishing. A 10-year study by Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia reveals there’s no part of the ocean that hasn’t been over-fished. Nations have moved to curb the decline through fishing restrictions, but considerable illegal fishing goes on and it appears to be an uphill fight.
Clams, snails, crustaceans such as shrimp and crayfish, and dozens of species of insects (including 19 species of butterfly) and spiders deserve a mention here, too. Many of these species are endangered. Do we care? Of course we do. Even spiders, creepy as they may seem, are essential in nature’s complex interdependency: Spiders are one of nature’s most important predators of insects.
Why do crustaceans matter? For one thing, they’re of huge economic importance to humans — think lobster and shrimp — as well as being an important food source for certain fish species.
The point here is that no life on our planet should be taken for granted. Nature doesn’t produce useless species. Scientists warn us that the complete loss of too many species, or even a drastic reduction in their populations, may have an unforeseen disastrous affect on humans later. Although earth has had numerous extinction events, both large and small, during the hundreds of millions of years since life first appeared, always before there has been intervening time for it to recover its biodiversity. On a moral level, there’s also the issue of whether it’s right to wipe out other species that inconvenience us, or for sport.
No extinction has been more dramatic than that of the Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius). When Europeans first arrived in North America an estimated three-to-five billion Passenger Pigeons blanketed the continent. They darkened the skies and could fly at speeds up to 60 miles per hour. John James Audubon, the famous naturalist, wrote of watching a flock in 1813 that passed overhead for three full days. It seems inconceivable that this huge population could become extinct, but the forests they depended on for nuts and berries was turned into farmland and they were killed for food, for their feathers and for sport. Hunters reportedly would fill wagonloads of pigeons during an organized shoot. The last wild one was shot in Ohio in 1900 and the last captive pigeon, named “Martha,” died in 1914.
The Ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) had been considered extinct for 60 years due to destruction of most of the forests it lived in until April 2004, when one — just one — was reported to be seen in a deeply forested area of Arkansas. Extensive organized searches in the area since then have turned up nothing and the sighting is now considered by most to have been mis-identification of a similar woodpecker.
Dusky Seaside Sparrow
The saga of the Dusky Seaside sparrow (Ammodramus maritimus nigrescens) is another illustration of the effect of thoughtless human actions on a species. The Dusky was a black-and-white shorebird who lived exclusively on the central Atlantic coast of Florida and on Merritt Island, which is situated just off the coast between Cocoa and Cocoa Beach, Florida. The Dusky depended on cordgrass (Spartina bakerii) habitat for nesting. The cordgrass required a very specific habitat in order to grow, wet but not too wet.
In 1963 nearby Kennedy Space Center attempted to control a mosquito-breeding problem by flooding the sparrows’ marsh, without attempting to preserve habitat for any of the species that depended on it. This action, along with the use of the insecticide DDT, effectively destroyed the population of Dusky Seaside sparrows. But then, another population of the sparrows was discovered in a different marsh. This time, concerned parties convinced the USFWS to purchase the land and protect it as a nature reserve. However, the Florida Department of Transportation was allowed to build a highway through the reserve as a connection from Disney World to the Kennedy Space Center and ultimately the last of the marsh was drained for real estate purposes.
The Dusky had no place else to go. A belated effort was made in the mid-70s to turn part of the area back into marsh, but it proved to be too late for the little sparrows. In 1979 and 1980 the few remaining Dusky Seaside sparrows were captured, five of them, all male, and introduced into a crossbreeding program with a similar species. The program eventually failed and through the years, one by one, the birds died. The last Dusky, called “Orange Band,” died in 1987.
Listen to a Dusky’s call
More about the Dusky
Robert James Waller’s essay on Orange Band
Plants are crying for help, too
The United States has more species of plants threatened with extinction than any other country. An incredible 4,669 species, or 29 percent, are imperiled directly or so rare as to be always at risk. As of 2012, 781 plants (including including three cypresses and a conifer) are officially on the USFWS list (note: link is always very, very slow to load). On a global level, of 270,000 known species, 12.5 percent are believed to be at risk. This assessment is the culmination of 20 years’ work by botanists and conservationists around the world.
How did this happen? In much the same way it has impacted animals — conversion of wilderness to agricultural land, logging, development and unwise introduction of alien species that crowd out native species.
Think about how important plant life is to humans. First of all, they have aesthetic value. Who hasn’t been awed by the beauty of a field of wildflowers, of tropical foliage nestled under a canopy of majestic trees draped with moss, of grasses waving in a soft breeze brushing the Flint Hills, even a perfectly symmetrical formal garden?
Plants have medicinal value — 80 percent of all medicinal drugs originated in wild plants. Even today 25 percent of prescription drugs contain chemicals from plants. Experts warn that genes from the plants of today may lead to the medicines of tomorrow — if they’re still around. Plants have food value — some 3,000 species of plants have been used for food. Plants have industrial importance — they provide fibers for clothing, wood for building and burning, and fuel like corn ethanol and soy diesel.
Plants also provide oxygen through photosynthesis. Their foliage traps dust and pollutants, and they intake carbon dioxide, which helps lessen the greenhouse effect. They control erosion. And of course they provide food, hiding and nesting places for wildlife. Water plants provide cover and habitat for spawning fish, as well as helping to filter sediments and keep water clean.
Western Prairie Fringed Orchid
The Western Prairie Fringed orchid (Platanthera praeclara) is listed by the USFWS as a threatened plant throughout its range from southeastern Manitoba, Canada to Kansas. It’s a tall native of tallgrass prairies that prefers an alkaline, stony, but slightly moist, soil; it has delicate white or creamy flowers. Conversion, overgrazing, intensive mowing, water drainage, competition from introduced species and herbicides have reduced its numbers. It’s pollinated by sphinx moths (incidentally, we kill a beautiful sphinx moth every time we pluck one of its big, fat, green, scary-looking but harmless caterpillars off our tomato plants. Learn more about moths and butterflies here.)
Running Buffalo Clover
Running buffalo clover (Trifolium stoloniferum) is a perennial that grows from stolons (runners) that take root along the ground. Its stems are 3 to 6 inches tall, topped by a white flower head and it looks pretty much like the clover that grows in our lawns. It’s thought that roaming herds of buffalo caused site disturbance and seed dispersal and in this way helped it to spread. The eradication of wild buffalo along with conversion of habitat was nearly the end of it. Where once it flourished throughout central and eastern grasslands at the edge of forests, by 1985 it was believed to be extinct. However, a few widely scattered populations have been found since then. All clover is a favorite food of rabbits and other forage animals. Bees love it, too.
A host plant for Monarch Butterfly larvae, Mead’s Milkweed (Asclepias meadii), is another species that’s either threatened or endangered throughout its range. An herb characterized by a drooping stem, it has large, greenish-cream flowers tinged with purple. It grows on dry prairies and chert-lime glades.
Why plants matter
Plants don’t take on the tragic aura of animals, especially when they’re milkweeds, clover and an unheard of, unprepossessing orchid that grows in a remote location few of us will visit. But what if I told you that globally 14 percent of rose species, 32 percent of lilies, 32 percent of irises, 14 percent of cherry species and 29 percent palms are among the plants most at risk?
Fortunately, we have the ability to help ensure these and other species, animals as well as plants, don’t disappear forever. Through communal, concerted effort we can prevent the loss of species, like the 19 species of birds who have become extinct just since 1975, joining 60 species of mammals and another 131 species of birds that have become extinct because of human activities.
All the rest
Today, around the world, there are approximately 20,000 species in imminent danger. According to the latest World Conservation Union Red List of Threatened Species (2006), two out of every five known species on earth face extinction in the foreseeable future. This includes 1 in 8 birds, 1 in 4 mammals and 1 in 3 amphibians. All total, 784 species have become extinct since record-keeping began. Just since 1975, 19 species of birds have become extinct, including most recently, the Po’ouli, a Hawaiian bird, in 2004.
What will our world be as time goes by and we have more extinctions and fewer species? Ecologists suggest that the more you simplify systems of living organisms the less stable they become. That means you’re more likely to have massive die-offs, starvations, loss of additional species, increase of pests, all kinds of things. So the greater diversity, usually the more stable…to sustain human life that’s what we want, a stable system.” — Robert Glotzhober curator natural history, Ohio Historical Society
¹ Farming and ranching alone are responsible for 68 percent of species loss.
² Some states maintain their own list of threatened or endangered species, which may include species not federally listed.
This article was last updated Nov. 18, 2012.