America’s Wildlife Crisis
The United States is filled with an incredible diversity of wildlife species that once encountered often gives rise to a deep sense of wonder, beauty, and awe. From a majestic encounter with a bighorn sheep scaling rocky cliffs to the joy that comes from watching a river otter at play to the thrill of watching a hawk soar high overhead, these sacred encounters with our nation’s amazing wildlife may not only leave one with a profound appreciation for creation, but also for the Creator. Speaking to the incredible breadth, depth and expansive imagination of God’s creation, scientists now have documented over 200,000 animal and plant species in the U.S. alone.
While America’s is blessed with such incredible and unique biodiversity, our nation is also in the midst of a major wildlife crisis where 1/3 of all wildlife species in the U.S. are considered to be at risk of extinction by 2050. Currently, in the U.S. more than 1,600 species are receiving protection under the Endangered Species Act. Over 150 American species have already gone extinct and another 500 have not been seen in decades and are considered “possibly extinct.” Freshwater fisheries have been hit the hardest with 40% of the nation’s freshwater fish now considered “rare or imperiled.” Pollinators like bees and butterflies that were once common are experiencing devastating declines raising serious concerns about food production and availability. For example, populations of Monarch butterflies have dwindled by more than 90% over the past two decades. Further, state wildlife agencies from across the nation have identified over 8,000 species that are need of conservation action and attention. To put all this in perspective, the declines we are seeing today are well beyond their historical range as current rates of extinction are now between 1,000 to 10,000 times greater than normal, rivaling rates last scene during the mass extinction of the dinosaurs.
Causes and Threats to America’s Wildlife
America’s wildlife are facing a variety of threats and challenges leading to their significant declines. These challenges include:
- Habitat Loss and Degradation—Throughout America much of the wildlife habitat has been has been cut up, paved over, converted to crops, drilled, mined and developed for residential and industrial uses.
- Between 1982-2001, 6,000 acres of wildlife habitat were lost to development every day in America–this is over 34 million acres or an area the size of Illinois.
- In the West, a football field worth of habitat is being developed every 2.5 minutes.
- 7 million acres of prairie, rangeland, forests and other natural habitats have been converted to crop production as an unitended consequence of policies promoting the use of food based fuels in the nation’s fuel supply.
- ½ of the nation’s wetlands have already been lost.
- Unfortunately, things are no better on a global level where we are losing 100 acres of rainforest a minute and literally dozens of species across the world are going extinct each day as result of habitat loss.
- Habitat Fragmentation—Fragmentation of wildlife habitat may include the use of fences, roads, residential and industrial development, natural resource extraction, including mining and logging, fires, drought and changes in climate that may impact an animal’s ability to move on a landscape or maintain normal ecological processes such as breeding, feeding or obtaining adequate shelter. Ensuring strong wildlife connectivity and the integrity of wildlife corridors allows species to adapt to changing climate conditions and have diverse genetics, which reduces disease and increases survivability.
- Wildlife Disease—The emergence of new diseases have posed a particularly dire threat to America’s wildlife. For example, fungal infections have killed more than 7 million bats in the East and Midwest. Chronic Wasting disease is a contagious neurological disease that has been found in 23 states and is impacting America’s big-game species including deer, elk, and moose. Whirling disease is a parasite that is affecting fish, including trout populations, throughout the country.
- Invasive Species-Without the threat of natural predators or controls, non-native species may flourish. If left unchecked, invasive species can seriously degrade wildlife habitat as well as compete with and prey upon native wildlife resulting in devastating effects to the larger ecosystem. For example, introduction of non-native trout species in the southwest have had devastating effects on populations of native trout such the Rio Grande Cutthroat trout and Gila trout. Indeed, it is not uncommon to read headlines of about the damage done by zebra mussels in the Great Lakes, Asian Carp in the Mississippi River drainage, pythons in the Everglades, or bark beetles damaging forests in the west.
- Pollution—While author and conservationist Rachel Carson sounded the alarm over pesticides in the 1960s and their harm to certain species, various forms of chemical pollution continue to be a major problem for America’s fish and wildlife. For example, research is revealing that many widely used modern pesticides are causing death and decline in pollinators and birds. Additionally, the agricultural use of fertilizers has resulted in devastating environmental impacts, including catastrophic “red tides” in Florida that has had tragic effects on the areas fisheries and marine mammals.
- Climate Change—Numerous studies show that America’s wildlife are being impacted by climate change and researchers have documented shortening of breeding seasons, changes in habitat availability, increased diseases and disruptions in interdependent species.
To put this bluntly, in towns across America there are no Elm trees on elm street, no rivers near River Road, no buffalo in Buffalo New York and no caribou in Caribou Maine. Whether it is the Salmon of the Pacific Northwest, bison of the prairies and plains, alligators of the coastal southeast, or bighorn sheep of the west, these animals represent a strong sense of place and an essential thread in the broader American landscape. As keepers of creation, spiritual leaders and faith communities must point out that the loss of America’s wildlife raises serious concerns about our individual and collective responsibility in the stewardship of God’s creation, but also strike at the very core of America’s identity, character, heritage and collective spirituality.