Endangered Species List Hits Close to Home

Dec 21, 2020

As the year comes to a close, the Masked Biologist takes a few minutes to ponder the fate of endangered species around the globe and closer to home.

It’s that time of year again. Every year, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources updates its red list, bringing the threatened and endangered species discussion to light. As stated on their website, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (known more simply as the IUCN) harnesses the experience, resources and reach of its more than 1,400 government and non-government organizations and the input of more than 17,000 experts, making them the global authority on the status of the natural world and the measures needed to safeguard it. This group has been generating its red list since 1964, calling attention to the most imperiled living species around the globe each year. We’re not just talking animals here—the list includes fungi and plant species as well.

Along with the basic information on these species, the IUCN provides a wealth of information about range, population size, habitat and ecology, uses, trade, threats, and conservation actions. So, just as an example, I clicked on the duck-billed platypus, curious to see why they think their numbers are declining. There is all sorts of information about impacts to water quality and clarity, temperature changes, and parts trade. I couldn’t imagine what value platypus parts would have, but they even explain a little further that it was local trade, for their pelts. If you think about it, they are an aquatic mammal, so it would be similar to our historic trade in otter, mink, beaver and muskrat pelts here in Wisconsin.

Because the listed species are categorized objectively, meaning it is fact-based and science-based, listing criteria needs to be updated regularly as scientific tools and techniques improve. In the sixties, the genesis of the conservation era, the start of the original Endangered Species Act here in the US, the species were probably those that we knew about, noticed, and documented. Today, the IUCN makes an effort to expand its list of assessed species every year. In 2020 their goal was to evaluate 160,000 species around the globe. Understandably, the way this year has gone, they are falling short of their goal; to date, they have assessed just shy of 130,000 different species. This number is nothing to be ashamed of—it was an amazing global effort. Of those species assessed, almost a third are considered threatened with extinction.

So why should you care? In the past, I have been encouraged to focus on local issues that matter to WXPR listeners. Well, to start with, I know you care. You want to know that tigers are going to disappear in the wild, that Tasmanian devils have overcome the odds and a deadly face-eating tumor disease to start increasing their numbers, and that a large glacier-fed lake near the Alaska-Yukon border is being threatened by climate change. Furthermore, this list may have helpful lessons for us. This year, they called attention to the recovery of the European bison. It existed only in captivity early in the last century. Captive breeding increased numbers enough to allow reintroduction to the wild in 1950. Wild populations were around 1,800 in 2003, and increased to over 6,200 in 2019. Today there are 47 distinct herds of animals, with the most robust numbers in Poland and Russia. The bison subgroup has identified that while these animals can do well in forested habitats, when they move out to open areas seasonally to graze they come into conflict with agriculture, which tells us that the limiting factor is protected grazing meadows. This can be an important lesson to us as we try to increase numbers of wild bison here in the US, and may even have implications for our state’s efforts to restore large ungulate populations like elk or (should it ever be considered) woodland caribou.

Credit Pixabay.com

Finally, the list can focus on species here in North America, the United States, and Wisconsin. As I was reading through their latest posted article, I was saddened, if not a little surprised, to see that oaks are getting red list attention. Of 430 species assessed around the globe, 113 are threatened with extinction.  The press release states “The highest numbers of threatened species are in China and Mexico, followed by Viet Nam, the United States and Malaysia. Land clearance for agriculture and logging are the most common threats in China, Mexico and Southeast Asia. Invasive alien species and diseases and climate change are the key threats to oaks in the United States.”

This is a global, objective, science-based assessment. Our oak forests are in dire straits, and the listed concerns are already identified as impactful stressors to survival and regeneration. This is the canary in the coal mine. We need to take measures to move from evaluation or preservation to conservation and mitigation to reverse this trend.

There is way more information than I can cover in my time here, but it is all freely available on the IUCN website. Take some time to get caught up in what is going on in endangered species conservation around the globe.