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Science & Environment

Noah’s Ark for Endangered Species


Over the past couple of weeks, both President Trump and Congress have proposed multiple changes to the Endangered Species Act. Those changes are controversial, but it’s worth noting this isn’t the first attempt to modify the Act. In fact, the Center for Biological Diversity says there have been more than 300 changes or proposed changes in the past two decades, and the pace has picked up in the past several years.

It’s worth noting, though, that the majority of Americans – across the political spectrum - support the endangered species act. And the act has a strong track record of preventing extinctions.

But actually bringing populations back to healthy levels has proved more difficult, and there’s a growing recognition among conservation biologists that we won’t be able to save everything.

So, how do we pick which species we put the most effort into conserving? One popular idea has been to try to maximize the diversity of species, but a new analysis says that might not have the desired effect.

“At the moment, we are in the midst of a mass extinction. Extinction rates are massively above what we’ve been seeing historically. It is concerning, but there’s still time to turn things around,” Will Pearse, an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Utah State University and senior author on that study said.

The act of choosing which animals go on the endangered species list has been compared to choosing who to put on Noah’s Ark, but with limited space and a sinking ship.

“It’s important to note that nothing is a foregone conclusion. It’s relatively straight forward for us to support the biodiversity that we need if we make a few changes,” Pearse said.

By “biodiversity that we need,” Pearse means things like bees for pollination and crops for food. We can preserve those things by preserving biodiversity, by acknowledging that each species, no matter how small, have an important role to play.

The IUCN has a thorough list of threatened species on its website and the number grows quite frequently.

“People working to prioritize and pick species do a very good job of checking, confirming and examining the biological requirements of species," Pearse said.

Pearse recommended visualizing a tree when thinking of the big picture of saving animals that are threatened: The idea is that you want to preserve as many branches on the tree as you can. You will save lots of functions that way.