There is a silent crisis all around us. It progresses at a rate that is barely noticeable. It does not grab your attention with melting glaciers and erratic weather as global warming does. But the loss of biodiversity is just as real as global warming and equally or more damaging. According to Birdlife International, twenty percent of bird species are in danger of extinction worldwide, with twenty-five percent endangered in the United States. National Audubon raises that percentage to fifty percent when the long term effects of global warming are taken into account. In addition, twenty-five percent of mammals and reptiles and thirty-three percent of amphibians are in danger of extinction. Certain taxa such as bats and pollinating insects are in free fall. Yet the loss of biodiversity is not even mentioned by the political class and is barely noticed in the press.
Many birders noticed the paucity of migratory birds this fall. While drought and El Nino weather patterns may have contributed to fewer birds migrating on the coastal route this fall, Hannah Suthers’ thirty-eight year Featherbed Lane bird banding data shows a real trend of fewer birds. Other long term studies show the same pattern. The loss is real.
The major causes of loss of biodiversity are habitat loss, fragmentation, and degradation. High quality habitat is rare and becoming rarer. Clearing forests for palm oil and soybean production is a major cause of habitat loss in the tropics, affecting the wintering homes of many of our breeding birds. Mangrove swamps are being cleared for resorts and shrimp farms at an alarming rate. Mangrove-wintering Prothonotary Warblers are classified as vulnerable by the American Bird Conservancy. Mountain top removal for coal mining is a major factor in the decline of the Cerulean Warbler. Extractive energy production, especially for oil and gas, is degrading and fragmenting wildlife habitats throughout large areas of North America. Pipelines to transport the oil and gas are further fragmenting and degrading terrestrial and aquatic habitats. The trend of placing gas pipelines through Important Bird Areas and other protected lands is especially disturbing. Slowly and surely the non-human species on this planet are disappearing. Protecting and restoring habitat is the most important action we can take to slow or reverse the rate of loss of species.
There has been a disturbing shift in the meaning of “green”as too many environmental organizations have become more homocentric. Nothing is truly green unless it protects biodiversity. Carbon dioxide-free energy sources are needed to combat global warning but poorly planned and sited wind and solar energy can contribute to loss of biodiversity. Wind farms need to be sited away from migratory bird routes. Farmlands and wild lands are not the best places for solar energy development. Consider the acres of flat roofs on warehouses and shopping malls for solar panels. Protecting biodiversity should be a major consideration in developing alternate energy. Otherwise we are substituting one devastating environmental problem for another.
At times the scope of the problem seems overwhelming and there is a tendency to tune out. But we need to acknowledge our kinship with the other species on this planet and build a grassroots movement to protect them. Take a friend or a child birding. Help with a citizen science project. Plant native plants in your yard. Plan your next vacation around ecotourism. There are many small steps you can take to promote biodiversity. Small steps become large steps if enough people do them. The many wild creatures we share this planet with amaze us with their lives and interconnections. The planet would be greatly diminished without them.