THE VINE JUNE 30, 2009
When it comes to saving dwindling species from oblivion, the federal government has actually done a halfway decent job. Since 1973, when the Endangered Species Act passed, more than 1,300 U.S. species have been listed as threatened or endangered, and only nine have totally vanished. Then again, it's also true that only 15 of those listed species have fully recovered—the whole point of the law in the first place. And the species that do recover tend to be cute animals that capture the public imagination: bald eagles, gray wolves, Yellowstone grizzly bears. That hasn't been a coincidence.
David Fahrenthold has a great story in The Washington Post about how, for decades, "charismatic megafauna" got all the love and attention when it came to conservation. Even today, the 50 protected species that get the most funding include eagles, bears, sea turtles—but few plants or insects or crustaceans. And that's a problem, since if you're looking at preserving a broad ecosystem, many of the less-cuddly plants and insects are often underpinning the whole edifice. Recently, however, that bias has started to evaporate—homely organisms like beetles and mussels that are key to a larger habitat are now getting the emphasis they often require.
One ever-nagging question, though, is what happens to all these painstaking conservation efforts if nothing's done to slow the pace of global warming. According to the IPCC, a 3.5C global average temperature rise would likely kill off 40 to 70 percent of the world's species. According to recent MIT projections, we're on pace for a 5.2C, rise by century's end, so expect an even higher carcass count. And a new Science study finds that "mass biodiversity collapse" has historically accompanied the sort of increases in carbon-dioxide that we're currently shoveling into the atmosphere. (In case you're curious, yes, this would be terrible for humanity—see this old TNR piece by Jerry Coyne and Hopi Hoekstra.)
In this grim scenario, focusing on "charismatic megafauna" obviously won't accomplish much at all. We're well beyond gray wolves being hunted to annihilation. In fact, even the twentieth-century strategy of trying to cordon off parks and wildlife reserves could prove futile, if temperature increases start shifting entire habitats around. (As one example, the protected areas in Mexico where monarch butterflies spend their winters may soon be uninhabitable as the climate transforms.) So it's worth asking if there's any conservation strategy to stop what would essentially be the sixth mass extinction in world history—apart from trying to curb emissions and prevent large temperature increases. It doesn't appear so.