Extinction, like a diamond, is forever | Columns

Extinction, like a diamond, is forever | Columns


The Endangered Species Act of 1973, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Nixon, protects our long-term economic development and is not a barrier to economic development. Biodiversity leads to biotic integrity and ecosystem function of our landscapes and thus to the economic well-being of the U.S. and its citizens.

In 1997 ecological economist Robert Costanza and others estimated the economic benefits of 17 ecosystem services. They estimated nature provides humans the equivalent of roughly twice the value of the entire global gross national product (GNP) per year. And this is free. All we have to do is protect it.

Costanza included services such as water regulation and supply, which combines hydrological, geological and biological processes; nutrient cycling and soil formation, without which agriculture would fail; recreational services; and waste treatment. These ecosystem services rely on diverse sets of species to perform properly.

A critical ecosystem service that is linked directly to our local economy and endangered species policy is pollination services. According to Scientific American, native bumble bees, as opposed to the domesticated honey bee, pollinate native plants as well as an estimated third of our crops.

The rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis) is a native species which, along with 47 other species of Bombus, are prized as pollinators in North America. It was listed as an Endangered Species in 2017 since its population and geographic distribution has plummeted by an estimated 90 percent. According to the IUCN, a quarter of the bumble bee species in the US and Canada are at risk of extinction. Thus, our agricultural sector has had to turn more and more to beekeepers and non-native honey bees to provide the service that nature used to do for free.

We are recognizing the importance of this ecosystem service in the valley, with the 10th Annual Palisade International Honeybee Festival occurring in April 2018 and the existence of the vibrant Western Colorado Beekeepers Association.

In the past, beekeepers paid farmers rent to put out their hives. Now beekeepers often get paid. Pollination services, rather than honey, is commercial beekeepers’ main source of income, according to Bloomberg. However, even with the addition of human-promoted services to the natural ones, agriculture, such as almond and peach production, suffers due to Colony Collapse Disorder. CCD occurs when the worker bees suddenly disappear from a colony. According to the New York Times, CCD led to an increase in the cost to farmers of renting hives of at least 20 percent in 2013.

One of the criticisms of the Endangered Species Act is that so few species have been delisted. As a scientist, this does not surprise me. After all, humans have brought these species to the very brink of extinction. There are mathematical and biological hurdles to overcome — such as that a population of 20 can only produce a few offspring every year, and only some, if any, will survive.

In 1941, there were 21 whooping cranes, now there are 757. In 1987, there were 18 black-footed ferrets, now there are more than 500. In 1987, there were 27 California condors, now there are 446. In 1967, there were 487 nesting pairs of bald eagles in the lower 48 states. In 2007, bald eagles were removed as an endangered species when the population reached almost 10,000 nesting pairs.

In comparison to other species, bald eagle recovery was fairly simple. Yet it still took 40 years. There was very good funding to rescue our national symbol. Eagles generally produce one to three eggs every year, and once chicks have survived their first year, morality rates are low. Eagles from Canada and Alaska immigrate to the lower 48 states. Also, we knew the primary cause of the population decline: DDT, which makes birds’ eggs weak and thus devastates reproduction and population size.

Both the length of time and the risk of a species winking out of existence increases as populations fall. Why not start protecting species before the numbers become so dire?

We do! The Endangered Species Act also provides for listing threatened species — those that are likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future. By law, threatened species are treated much like endangered species to avoid worsening the problem. In fact, in the text of the ESA, endangered and threatened are almost always used together.

Unfortunately, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke recently announced plans to lessen protections for threatened species. This is short-sighted. The task of recovery is much more difficult — there are biological hurdles to recovering species that are endangered rather than threatened. Biodiversity is crucial to protect in order to ensure our economy continues to thrive.

As former Sen. Tim Wirth, D-Colorado, said in a speech in Fort Collins, “the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment.”


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