Thursday, June 07, 2007

Why Species Endangerment Matters to You

Grist has posted a great, albeit sad article about the decline of many of the world's bird species.

Seldom emphasized in mass media discussions of the Endangered Species Act is the implication of species endangerment to people - that the decline of a species is, in many cases, an omen of trouble to come for humans. As the article so eloquently poses:

How long 'til we get the hard fact that the indicator species that are disappearing are pointing a ghostly finger -- tentacle, talon, hoof, claw -- in our direction? A language we don't understand or are incapable of hearing is whispering, "This will affect you."

In two examples of this off the top of my head:
  • The decline of spotted owls served as an indicator that the Pacific Northwest's forests were being logged to quickly to sustain not only owls, but also logging jobs. Timber companies cut tomorrow's trees yesterday.
  • The decline of salmon served as an indicator of an array of examples of unsustainable environmental management (of forests and waterways) that lead to the decline of the Pacific Northwest's salmon fishing industry.
Anybody out there have other examples? Please do provide them in the comments.

As a conservation biologist, I have watched for too long as time after time, politics trumps science when it comes to protecting endangered species. What will it take to move beyond this problem? As with changing public perceptions of other hot-button political issues, my take is that this is a job for the framing experts out there. Specifically, endangered species need to be reframed from being communicated as "threats to economic freedom" to 'canary in the coal mine' type indicators whose condition can help humans identify and avoid looming economic and social problems.

Whenever possible, I'll do my best to cover related stories: how species endangerment means a lot more than simply the decline and possible loss of a particular type of critter in an ecosystem. And how taking steps to cure an ecosystem of species endangerment can have far-reaching social and economic benefits.

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