America’s Wildlife Crisis

An extinction crisis is rippling through America’s wildlife, with scores of species at risk of being wiped out unless recovery plans start to receive sufficient funding, conservationists have warned. One-third of species in the US are vulnerable to extinction, a crisis that has ravaged swaths of creatures such as butterflies, amphibians, fish and bats, according to a report compiled by a coalition of conservation groups. A further one in five species face an even greater threat, with a severe risk of being eliminated amid a “serious decline” in US biodiversity, the report warns. “America’s wildlife is in crisis,” said Collin O’Mara, chief executive of the National Wildlife Federation. “Fish, birds, mammals, reptiles and invertebrates are all losing ground. We owe it to our children and grandchildren to prevent these species from vanishing from the earth.”

More than 1,270 species found in the US are listed as at risk under the federal Endangered Species Act, an imperilled menagerie that includes the grizzly bear, California condor, leatherback sea turtle and rusty patched bumble bee. However, the actual number of threatened species is “far higher than what is formally listed”, states the report by the National Wildlife Federation, American Fisheries Society and the Wildlife Society. Using data from NatureServe that assesses the health of entire groups of species on a sliding scale, rather than the case-by-case work done by the federal government, the analysis shows more than 150 US species have already become extinct while a further 500 species have not been seen in recent decades and have possibly also been snuffed out.

Whole classes of creatures have suffered precipitous drops, with 40% of freshwater fish species in the US now vulnerable or endangered, a third of bat species experiencing major declines in the past two decades and amphibians dwindling from their known ranges at a rate of about 4% a year. The true scale of the crisis is probably larger when species with sparse data, or those as yet unknown to science, are considered. “This loss of wildlife has been sneaking up on us but is now like a big tsunami that is going to hit us,” said Thomas Lovejoy, a biologist at George Mason University. Lovejoy was consulted on the study and said it “captures the overall degradation of American nature over recent decades, rather than little snapshots.”

Species have been battered by the destruction of forests, prairie and wetlands to make way for mass agriculture, urbanisation, roads and mining. The use of pesticides in farming is linked to the decline of key pollinators such as bees. Meanwhile, improved transportation between states and from other countries has unleashed diseases such as fungal infections that have ravaged certain frogs and bats. Invasive species including feral hogs, nutria and emerald ash borers have torn apart wildlife habitats such as forests and riverbanks, often with little to slow them. Climate change is a further blow, with rising temperatures, sea level rise and altered rainfall all having consequences for species as diverse as bears, which are finding certain foodstuffs hard to come by, and monarch butterflies, which have seen their numbers drop by about 90% in recent decades and which are considered acutely sensitive to changes in weather patterns.

“Species are living in smaller patches of habitat and not interacting with other members,” said Erle Ellis, a professor of geography and environmental systems at the University of Maryland. Ellis has co-authored research on how the world is moving toward its sixth great mass extinction event. “Extinctions are ramping up, and if that continues, it will be one for the history books for the whole planet. The world is getting very humanised, and I’m very concerned about the cost of biodiversity. It’s a challenge that will face us throughout this century and beyond.” The conservationists’ report calls for a major funding boost for recovery plans drawn up by states within the US. By “dramatically ramping up investments in proactive state-based conservation”, the US can stem and even reverse its species losses, the report states, pointing to success stories such as the reintroduction of Canada lynx to Colorado, wood bison to Alaska and the bolstering of trout populations across 17 states.

There are about 12,000 species with recovery strategies across various US states, although wildlife conservation has typically suffered from funding shortfalls at the state level. The federal Fish and Wildlife Service were initially targeted for a budget cut under the Trump administration, although Congress recently handed it a modest increase in funds. “The states and counties are very uneven in their capacity so ideally, you’d get some federal leadership,” said Lovejoy. “What’s quite promising is that there are civil society organisations who care about this stuff. At some point, the American public will wake up. When you look at the trends of extinctions, it’s easy to get discouraged. The good news is that living things like to make more of themselves. Give them a chance, and they will recover. Thank God for sex.” US Fish and Wildlife wouldn’t comment directly on the report. A spokeswoman for the agency said: “The ultimate goal of the Endangered Species Act is recovery. The greatest chance we have of achieving that goal is by working with diverse partners, including states and private and non-profit organisations, to leverage our cumulative knowledge and resources.”

Credit: Oliver Milman for The Guardian, 29 March 2018.