Apr 13

From Endangered Species Scientist to Endangered Species Writer

This is a post by Dr. Jan Randall, Endangered Species Coalition Board of Directors Member and Scientific Advisory Board Chair. Dr. Randall is the author of the recently released book, Endangered Species: A Reference Handbook.


I have always considered nature an essential part of my life. The diversity of biological systems fascinates me. It did not take me long, therefore, to agree to write a book on endangered species when contacted by ABC-CLIO press for a book to be included in their Contemporary World Issues Series.

My research area is animal behavior, and I spent many years as a field biologist studying the social organization and communication of desert rodents. One of my study subjects, the giant kangaroo rat, is an endangered species that lost most of its native habitat to agriculture and today occupies only about 2 percent of its former range in California. Kangaroo rats hop on their hind legs, thus the name. The giant kangaroo rat is a keystone species, which means other species in the food chain depend on its presence either as prey (endangered San Joaquin kit foxes love to snack on kangaroo rats) and from contributions to the habitat. Its last refuge, the Carrizo Plain National Monument, is one of the areas designated for review for possible size reduction or elimination by the Trump administration.  

Giant Kangaroo Rat

Scientists who study animal behavior often end up involved in conservation of the species they study. It is difficult to observe behavior of animals for hours on end and not appreciate their value both aesthetically and biologically. For example, Jane Goodall devoted her life to conservation after her initial studies of chimpanzee behavior. She notes: “You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.” I hope this book makes a difference.

I began down this road of thinking about endangered species as a graduate student at the University of Washington almost 50 years ago. Instead of the advanced ecology class, the professor carted us off to a public hearing on DDT. The what hearings? I had no idea that DDT was killing predatory birds by transfer up in the food chain to cause their egg shells to be too thin to support life of the chicks. Populations of these birds, including our national symbol the bald eagle, had declined at a disturbing rate. Eventually these birds became protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), DDT was prohibited for use in the United States, and the bird populations began to recover.

In the meantime, while the bald eagle, brown pelican, and peregrine falcon were recovering other species were declining and disappearing in front of my very eyes. In college, I worked for two summers at Redfish Lake in Stanley Basin, Idaho. The lake earned its name from the red bodies of thousands of sockeye salmon that migrated there from the Pacific Ocean to spawn. I was in awe of these teaming bodies of fish thrashing around in the water, but in just a couple of decades the fish disappeared and were listed as endangered in 1991 under the ESA. The eight dams constructed on the Columbia and Snake rivers were just too much for the salmon to navigate. Today the sockeye salmon population is on “life support” and sustained via hatchery breeding. A better, more natural solution would be to remove the dams on the lower Snake River to allow the salmon to renew their natural cycle.

Today species survival is threatened more than ever by government leaders who do not understand biodiversity and seem to care little about endangered species and the environment. Policies are being established that threaten habitats and decrease the sizes of national monuments. Climate change is no longer of concern. Species are being removed from the endangered species list before scientists say they are ready: grizzly bears and gray wolves. In a move to weaken protection of imperiled species, the Department of Interior recently proposed a rule to withhold protections for any species listed as “threatened.”

As a biologist, I am fully aware that everything is connected in a web of life, and for every species that becomes threatened and endangered the balance of the planet’s ecosystems may lose a link. I wanted readers of the book to understand the importance of these connections, how these connections are threatened, and to become inspired to join the fight to save endangered species and to protect the ESA from efforts to weaken it.

I welcomed the opportunity to use my scientific training, background in biology, and my passion for living creatures to write a comprehensive treatment of the topic. We must be prepared to take action, and my book is one of the tools that can be used for this purpose.

 

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