President Emeritus of Defenders of Wildlife
Consultant on African wildlife conservation
Consider America without the grizzly bear, gray wolf, ocelot, Florida manatee, woodland caribou. The bald eagle, whooping crane, Peregrine falcon, brown pelican, piping plover, spotted owl, wood stork, white-faced ibis, roseate tern, snail kite, golden-cheeked warbler. The desert tortoise, California red-legged frog, and American crocodile. Four sturgeon and seven trout species, and several Chinook, coho, and sockeye salmon populations. A lengthening list of clams, snails, beetles, butterflies. Hine’s emerald dragonfly, and the Nashville crayfish. Hundreds of wildflowers and other plants, including more than a dozen fern species. And so many, many more.
What are endangered species?
Endangered species are the warmth, joy, and glory of being alive amid the vast diversity of living things—big and small, delicate and mighty. They are the vital ingredients of landscapes whose resulting harmony is a welcome counterpoint to the chaos of modern human existence. They are the instruments that make the music of nature, producing a symphony delightful to the ears and soothing to stress-filled minds.
Endangered species are a reminder that all living things are part of creation and have their own dignity and intrinsic worth apart from any value that we might bestow.
Endangered species are the memories of childhood, the stuff that carefree sunny afternoons were made of. They are the beetles and snails, the butterflies and dragonflies endlessly pursued and carefully captured to be admired in mason jars with freshly picked grass and newly aerated lids.
Endangered species are the rhythm of the seasons. They are the migrating birds whose sweet songs announce each spring, the wildflowers that scent and color the summer meadow, the earth-toned leaves that fall on crisp autumn mornings, and the tracks of predator and prey acting out age-old dramas across the winter snow.
Endangered species are the inspiration for countless books, songs, poems, paintings, photographs, and sculptures that enrich our culture beyond measure. They are Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Robert Service, John Muir, A.B. Guthrie, Emily Dickinson, Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, Wallace Stegner, John James Audubon, Ansel Adams, Frederic Remington, Charlie Russell, Aaron Copland, and many more whose inspiring works are tribute to a natural world now at risk.
Endangered species are the essence of wild nature. They are the hunter and hunted whose behavior has determined the characteristics of countless animals, making bison tough, antelope swift, and mountain goats nimble. They are the excitement and adventure that only wildness can offer.
Endangered species are the frontier challenges that shaped the unique American character. They are the at-risk survivors of the clash between ever-advancing civilization and constantly retreating nature, but also the salvation of that civilization which gains perspective, vitality and balance from a world where ultimate freedom and independence still prevail.
Endangered species are a warning that the margin between existence and extinction is narrowing, and that millions of years of evolutionary processes are being forever altered. They are a signal that the web of life of the future will be much less rich and complex, with uncertain consequences for all species, including our own.
Endangered species are a reminder that all living things are part of creation and have their own dignity and intrinsic worth apart from any value that we might bestow. But they are also species threatened by a fate worse than death, now surviving only precariously in life’s shadows, midway between being and not-being – innocent victims of human actions at odds with true humanity.
That is what endangered species are today. Their tomorrow depends upon society’s willingness to adopt a wiser, more compassionate, and morally superior view of progress. So does our own.