Carol Pruette has never seen an Indochinese tiger. Until someone mentioned the name, she’d never heard of a Ganges River dolphin.
Pruette, a resident of Marshfield, Missouri, is neither an animal expert nor a biologist so it perhaps comes as no surprise she is a not familiar with two of the many animals species considered endangered on earth.
And though the aforementioned animal species mean little to Pruette – and perhaps most of the people who reside in or happened to be visiting Minnesota that afternoon – when this reporter spoke to her outside the Cook County Library in Grand Marais, Pruette was stunned to hear about a recent report from the World Wildlife Fund that states the world populations of fish, birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles fell by 52% during the past 40 years.
The conservation group’s “Living Planet Index,” published every two years, said the declines can be attributed primarily to habitat loss, deforestation, unsustainable hunting and fishing practices and climate change. In other words: human beings are largely to blame.
“I had no idea it was so dramatic,” Pruette said of the recent findings. “It’s easy not to think about this kind of stuff as we go about our lives and everyday living.”
Not thinking on a practical level is perhaps what caused the steep and rapid decline of animal, fish and bird species on earth, according to both state and federal wildlife officials.
“The loss of a single species may not be important, but continued degradation of our lands and waters that reduces our biological diversity – the variety of life – is important, ” said Georgia Parham, a public affairs specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Midwest Region. “Habitat and water degradation, and maybe even climate change, can be reversed, but the loss of a species and its genes, and losses of ecosystems are irreversible.”
Despite animals such as the gray wolf and bald eagle recently coming off Minnesota’s protected species list, the land of 10,000 lakes currently has a growing number of plants and animals that may be endangered or on their way to extinction, according to the USFWS Endangered Species list.
Aside from the obvious sources of food, many plant and animal species have been shown to provide benefits to humans, according to Rich Baker, the endangered species coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
“Many of our medicines are derived from wild species,” he said, “and many of our technological developments are inspired by observations of how nature solves a problem.”
Minnesota’s natural systems are a complex web of many species interacting and working together in complex ways that we don’t fully understand, according to Baker.
“We simply don’t know what species we can allow to disappear from an ecosystem before it begins to lose its integrity and fail,” he said.
For example, Baker noted, over half of the state’s freshwater mussel species are endangered or threatened.
“Mussels are like the coral reefs of our rivers,” he said. “They provide food for other species, provide habitat and shelter for other species, and filter the water in which they live. Rivers are much healthier if they support healthy mussel populations.”
These links or correlations are why the statistics in the Living Planet Index are important to every citizen in every location across the planet, many argue.
“I’ve probably never heard of most of the animals on that list,” Pruette admitted. “But I do believe there is a chain that links all life together in one way or another.”
The variety of life that we have in this country, including functioning ecosystems, is our natural heritage that was passed to us from earlier generations, according to Parham.
“We have a responsibility to our future generations to pass them a natural heritage,” she said, “at least as rich as the one passed down to us.”
Minnesota law requires the DNR to maintain a list of species that are at risk of disappearing from the state. The state’s list of endangered, threatened and special concern species was first established in 1984. That list was updated as recently as Sept. 21, 2014, and contains species ranging from Canada lynx to the northern long-eared bat. And while the list of animals is important in and of itself, it is also critical to understand why they became at risk in the first place.
Habitat loss ranks among the highest contributors of declining animal populations in many parts of the world, including the Midwest, according to the Ecological Society of America. From prairies to wetlands, much of the landscape in Minnesota has been altered during the past 100 years.
“The prairie ecosystem is not completely gone, yet, but it will be if we do not take measures to save its plants and animals,” Parham said.
There are many solutions and ideas when it comes to solving the world’s troubles as they relate to endangered species. Most of them focus on decreasing habitat destruction and developing less destructive approaches to human aspirations. Take, for example, the fact the Minnesota Vikings hierarchy will spend more than $1 billion to build a new stadium but refuse to install windows that could ultimately save the lives of thousands of birds.
To fix the problem of declining animal populations will take more than money and faith, it will come from a change of ideology and how humans interact with the land, according to Baker.
“There is great beauty in nature, and whether you believe in evolution or creation, each species is an amazing entity that we cannot replace if we lose it.” he said. “It is difficult to justify in an ethical or moral sense allowing species to be lost.”
Photos by: Dave Inman — Joe Friedrichs