I’ve been thinking a lot about extinction recently, and its role on Earth – maybe the only planet where there have ever been living things, and most of those living things are extinct.
Scientists estimate that about 99.9 percent of all species that have ever existed no longer do. Dinosaurs, Plesiosaurs, Mosasaurs, and Pteranodon ruled Earth for millions of years, and before them, there were marine trilobites, reptile-like synapsids, and temnospondyl amphibians, among others. All gone.
If extinction is the rule, then all the species living today are the exceptions. Every single living animal is just the most recent offspring of a lineage that traces all the way back through history, somehow managing to survive asteroids, ice ages, volcanic eruptions, changing climates, competition, and all of history’s other causes of extinction.
That anything has been able to survive this unforgiving planet is a miracle. That life has flourished is a gift.
Humans are the most unique threat yet, and thousands of species have already been erased by our hands. Long before the concepts of extinction were even understood, before we’d even civilized ourselves, our ancestors were hunting large animals out of existence. Cave bears and mammoths in Europe, camels and glyptodon armadillos in North America, hippopotamus-sized wombats in Australia, and more. All dead by our hand.
Humans are also killing species in other ways, of course, by rapidly altering the climatic conditions species evolved to inhabit. In some ways this is nothing new – the planet’s climate is constantly changing, in ways that hurt some species but create new habitat for others. But we’re changing the climate millions of years faster than normal, and we’re putting additional pressure on species by overhunting and overfishing, developing and fragmenting their habitats, polluting the air and water, and generally being terrible planetary roommates.
The result is an extinction crisis and loss of biodiversity on par with the worst extinctions in the planet’s history.
But, crucially, we’re aware of what we’re doing. That simple fact is remarkable and separates our extinction from the ones prior. The asteroid didn’t know it was going to kill the dinosaurs and couldn’t stop itself, and neither did the Siberian Traps know that their volcanic eruptions would cause the largest extinction in history. Nothing else could stop itself.
But we can. There are a ton of things we need to do to reverse our harmful impacts on Earth, and at the top of the list should be protecting the species that are closest to going extinct.
The Endangered Species Act is one of the most innovative laws in the world, a pause to the relentless roll of human progress for the benefit of our most vulnerable species. It has successfully prevented the extinction of 99 percent of listed species and resulted in the dramatic recovery of others, like the Bald Eagle.
It’s a law that works, but a law that’s starved. According to the reports from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees management of the act, hundreds of endangered species receive less than $1,000 a year for their recovery, with many receiving no funding from the service at all. We need to do better than that, and we can.
U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, a dedicated supporter of wildlife and biodiversity, is now the chair of the House Appropriations Interior & Environment Subcommittee, with the ability to help restore badly needed funding to support endangered species recovery. I hope that she will and that we continue our civilized and unprecedented pullback from extinction and toward a more harmonious place among the living things on Earth.
Nick Lund of Cumberland is outreach and network manager at Maine Audubon. He has written about nature for the National Audubon Society, Down East, National Parks Magazine, The Washington Post, and others. He can be found online at TheBirdist.com and on Twitter @TheBirdist.