The list of endangered species continues to get longer around the world and society is increasingly faced with the nearly impossible decision of which ones to take off life support.
Under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, once a species is discovered to be at risk of extinction, government agencies are required by law to take steps to save it. However, it is a legitimate criticism of the act that trying to save every creature is unrealistic. There are only so many resources that can be spent in conservation efforts and ultimately, it is quite possible that those resources get spent on less-important species rather than the most critical ones.
But what are the most critical ones? Assigning value to a species is an almost-impossible task that no one wants to undertake. What are the criteria? Ecological importance? Utility? Genetic diversity? Functional diversity? A species’ place in our heritage? Its beauty? Its symbolism? There is no formula for doing this and it is hard to imagine that there could possibly be agreement by many people about any of it. Is it more important to save wolves or snow leopards?
The current administration is attempting to weaken the Endangered Species Act through various pieces of legislation, many of which are trying to create business-friendly loopholes that would dramatically undermine the protections of the original law. Some of these bills have a good chance of passing.
But looking beyond the current political climate, there are overriding issues of increasing human destruction of habitats and the rising impact of climate change. These things are creating increasing numbers of endangered species. Saving them all is not realistic. Conservationists face impossible decisions.
Photo, posted August 19, 2012, courtesy of Joan Campderros-i-Canas via Flickr.