A Fragile Web: The Evolution Of The Debate Over Endangered Species and Habitats
The interconnection of all living creatures on Earth is known as the “Web Of Life” for a reason. If a single strand is broken, then the entire thing can conceivably collapse. An industrious spider has been working this web since the beginning of life on earth, but in recent centuries the strands have been breaking too quickly for all of them to be repaired. The breaking of strands is not a new thing; creatures have been disappearing from this planet since the animal life that inhabited Earth consisted of single-celled organisms without even what we would recognize as sensory organs. Eventually biological evolution lead from those micro-organisms all the way to the pinnacle of intelligent animals, Homo sapiens, the human being. And humans, being as intelligent as we are, began to find ways to shape the world around them – to bend it to their will. We built cities, skyscrapers, mighty pyramids, super computers and space shuttles. Humanity spread across the world until we possessed and dominated over seventy percent of the planet’s landmass, pushing the other creatures with whom we share the planet into the remaining thirty, and then getting upset when they “invade” our territory. However, in more recent time, we have become very aware of not only our own impact on the planet where we live, but the impact that the creatures around us do have and should be having. In the last several decades, the debate over the right to life for endangered species and their habitats has evolved into an entirely new species of it’s own; the factors responsible for this evolution include scientific research into the connections between animals and their environments, the invention of and application of the cloning process, and the growing human population that has become the most major cause of habitat loss recognized today.
The current debate over endangered species is, at it’s most broad definition, whether or not species that are endangered should be protected. Between 1970 and 2009, the debate has evolved significantly. When the debate began, it was subdivided into several smaller debates; whether or not the species endangerment was caused by, or simply contributed to by humans, and whether we should do something about it or simply sit back and let the world fix itself. Both sides of both debates have many points, however, in the 2000s, a new side to the debate surfaced along with scientific applications for aiding some endangered species, while we also gained a new understanding of exactly what we are losing; the fact that it is more than animals and plants, but also parts of our own human culture that are going extinct.
Beginning in the 1970s, the government instituted a set of five legislative laws designed to foster good stewardship of our nation’s natural resources. These five laws are the Marine Mammal Protection Act (1972), the Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act (1972), the Coastal Zone Management Act (1972), the Fishery Conservation And Management Act (1976), and, most relevant to this topic, the Endangered Species Act (1973), hereafter referred to as ESA. As Jennifer Jeffers states in an issue of Ecology Law Quarterly, “The purpose of the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) is to conserve and recover populations of endangered and threatened species to a point at which legal protection is no longer necessary” (Jeffers, p455). An admirable goal, especially given the ever escalating number of threats to these already endangered animals and habitats. Besides human intrusion into formerly wild places, the nonindigenous animals that we bring with us (dogs, cats, rats, mice), and the diseases thereof, also find their way into the wild population with devastating impact. As Beth Sanderson stated in an issue of Bioscience, “nonindigenous species, which are associated with the decline of many threatened and endangered species, are a major threat to global diversity” (Sanderson, p245).
The debate began to evolve again in the 1980s with the eruption of Mt. Saint Helens in Washington State drawing the public’s attention once again to the wild aspects of the world in which we live. Again, creatures already protected by the ESA were brought into the public eye. One of the creatures that took center stage at this point (and has held it the most consistantly since), is none other than the gray wolf, Canis lupus. Understanding that we didn’t really know very much at all about these animals who’s near extinction we had been the cause of, prompted several research studies and the founding of facilities such as Wolf Park in 1982. This was the first major excursion of the scientific community into trying to figure out what could and should be done about endangered species.
Also in the 1980s, the phrase “web of life” began coming to life in whole new ways, as the new scientific research found connections between plants and animals that were previously only guessed at, at best. In the 1981 book Extinction: The Causes and Consequences of the Disappearance of Species, Paul and Anne Ehrlich had this to say about the environmental web:
“The webs are portrayed as pyramids, with masses of plants at the bottom supporting the whole structure, and relatively small numbers of flesh-eating organisms at the top. The arrangement is dominated by feeding sequences – say, plant to mouse to hawk to hawk louse- called food chains. If the plants that support the food chains are destroyed, the whole sequence collapses. If an organism higher up on the chain is destroyed, it may cause population explosions below (knock off hawks, and the mice will multiply out of control), with domino effects culminating the disaster” (Ehrlich, p79).
Several prominent organizations were also founded in this period, including Greenpeace (changing their name from the “Don’t Make A Wave” organization, in 1981), and PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), founded in 1980. While these organizations undoubtedly also have their own agendas, their primary focus is research and advocacy for both endangered species and all animals in general. Their methods vary and are, in some cases, proven to be unethical, however that does not change the fact that their focus is on the natural world. These organizations proved useful in bringing environmental issues to the forefront of human thought for the remainder of the 1980s, though in the early 1990s, different concerns seemed to begin to take precedent.
In the 1990s, the debate over endangered species and habitats turned away from a “what’s going on and what can we do” perspective, and more to a “how can we fix what we’ve already lost” thought process. Again returning to the example of the gray wolf, in mid-January 1995, fourteen wolves were trapped in Canada and transported to Yellowstone National Park to begin their acclimation period prior to being released into the wild. The legal battles and court decisions leading up to this momentous event in the history of the debate over endangered species were long and arduous, and the preparation for the release of the wolves did not mean that the issue was resolved. However, it was still a major victory for endangered species and habitats that we were finally doing more than researching and predicting, and had finally moved on to actual courses of action. A major reason for the transplantation of wolves back into Yellowstone was the series of studies that focused on the web, or pyramid, that the wolves had originally been a part of. As stated in “How Wolves Help Willows,” “A growing body of evidence shows that the near extinction of the gray wolf across most of the U.S. West has triggered a cascade of ecological effects—on everything from elk populations to the health of willows and other tree species and vegetation” (“How Wolves Help Willows,” p4).
These studies in the 1990s also paved the way for the major scientific realization that it was not simply animals that were threatened. Vegetation, insect populations, as well as the population of creatures we normally think of as vermin (mice, rats, possums, etc.) is all far more interconnected than we ever imagined. It also became clear through further research studies that humanity as a whole is a big problem as far as contributing to the loss of animals and plants. Noel Simon stated in his book, Nature In Danger: Threatened Habitats and Species, “The insatiable demand for redwood timber resulted in large-scale exploitation, particularly during California’s boom years in the latter half of the 19th century” (Simon, p140). This was linked to the loss of the California Brown Bear, the reason that California has a bear on it’s state flag and yet no wild brown bears living within the state lines. All of this realization of and work to counteract humanity’s impact on the wild places paved the way for the biggest advancements in the debate over endangered species, which would occur in the 2000s.
By the Endangered Species Act’s original 1970s definitions, an “endangered species” is “any species which is “in danger of extinction” throughout all or a significant portion of its range . . . ” (section 3.6) and a “threatened species” is “any species which is likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range” (section 3.21). These definitions were challenged in 2005 in the court case Defenders Of Wildlife v. Norton. It was pointed out that these definitions, when applied realistically to most animals that were endangered, made little to no sense. For instance, “consider[ing the] gray wolf (Canis lupus) [eligible] for delisting [(marking as “no longer in danger of extinction”)] throughout the lower 48 states [is absurd,] given that it occupies less than 5% of it’s ‘historic range’” (Vucetich, p1385). However, using the original definitions set forth in the ESA, the gray wolf would be perfectly ready to be delisted and set upon by hunters and annoyed farmers, thus beginning the same cycle of human interference equaling species scarcity that we have already seen in history. However, after the 2005 court case, “the new definition’s expansion [now included] species in danger of extinction ‘in any portion of its range’ [which] represented a significant shift in the definition in existing law [that] considered a species to be endangered only when it is threatened with worldwide extinction” (Vucetich, p1385).
This new development combined with scientific advancements to create an entirely new world for the debate over endangered species. Through the 1990s and into the 2000s, the process of cloning mammals (reproducing genetically identical creatures through genetic implantation of previously unfertilized eggs with the DNA of the original creature) has been all but perfected to the point that there has been much discussion of using this method to bring back species that are not only endangered, but are even already extinct. Almost complete DNA of a Woolly Mammoth has already been extracted from remains. It remains to be seen as to whether or not a viable embryo can be created through this use of ancient DNA, but that does not change the fact that cloning and DNA mapping are important tools in the debate over endangered species. They have advanced the part of the debate that focuses on “what can we do,” and brought to light many new ways of handling what is happening in our world.
Also in the 2000s, we have come to realize that the debate over endangered species and habitats should even be expanded to include something else – something of just as much value as the animals of the world. Our own culture and history is likewise endangered. As of 2006, the current statistics regarding the disappearance of creatures and things from this planet, went something like this: “[we lose] a distinct species every ten minutes, a unique vegetable variety every six hours, and an entire language every two weeks” (Glavin, p3). And so the debate has expanded to include aspects of our own human culture that are being phased out and, unlike the great pyramids and other historical artifacts, there will be no evidence left of them for future generations. With the expansion of the debate, the further we push into trying to understand the world in which we live, and the scientific advancements that simply keep happening, there is much hope that a solution to the debate will be found in the coming years as we continue on into the 2000s.
The debate over endangered species and habitats has evolved over time, much like the species and habitats themselves have – and much like we as humans have. Our lives are attached to the creatures and plants with whom we share the planet in an intricate and almost inexplicable web. Every time we have thought that we’ve understood what is happening in our world, nature has thrown us another surprise. Get rid of wolves that prey on livestock, and suddenly the farm is overrun with rabbits and other small prey animals. Poison the prey animals and the farm is overgrown with vegetation. Reintroduce the predators and the livestock body count goes up. Reintroduce the prey animals and now the vegetation is under control, but we are back where we started with the original issue of the predators occasionally culling an animal from the livestock. The more we try to control our environment, the more the environment informs us of just how little we know.
The court cases surrounding the delisting of wolves continue to this day. Entire packs are shot down from helicopters and left where they lay, and then a month later that practice is declared illegal, only to be legalized again the next time someone raises an issue with their livestock supposedly being decimated by wild wolves. Only one of many facets in the debate over endangered species, the wolf issue is a good yardstick with which to measure the evolution of the debate. From the creation of the Endangered Species Act in the 1970s, to the institution of cloning and ancient DNA application to the recovery of species and perhaps even the return of extinct species. Undoubtedly, this debate will continue into the future, the hope being that we come to some sort of universal agreement on the subject before it is too late to save the creatures with whom we are supposed to be sharing the planet.
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