email a friend iconprinter friendly iconCountdown to Extinction
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But what about the Delhi Sands flower-loving fly, an inch-long insect that now lives in only a few locations in southern California's Riverside and San Bernardino Counties? Or the 165 remaining Salt Creek tiger beetles, which dwell in a few surviving patches of saline marsh near Lincoln, Nebraska? What about Mississippi sandhill cranes, which are down to about 25 breeding pairs? Or the once widespread Higgins' eye pearly mussel, whose range has shrunk to a few pools in the Mississippi River and its tributaries? What about a shorebird like the red knot, which is not federally listed but is in steep decline from the overharvesting of its predominant food source, horseshoe crabs?

Most people have never heard of, much less seen, these creatures. They have no immediate appeal except their own intrinsic beauty. They stand for nothing except their own way of life, which has been hindered by development, pollution, or the spread of invasive species.

After 35 years it has become clear that the Endangered Species Act is really a test—and not just to see whether we can do the scientific and bureaucratic and legal legwork quickly enough to make a difference for the thousands of species at risk. The act is a test of priorities—a test the just elected President and his administration will face anew. After all the politically delicate lessons we've learned about protecting species at risk, will the country recommit itself to the task with the directness and the idealism of 1973?

Again and again, the battle over listing a species—giving it the protection of the law—boils down to the choices we make in our ordinary lives. Listing the greater sage grouse, for instance, would hamper natural gas and coal development in Wyoming. But we could offset those losses in production by conserving energy, something we ought to be doing anyway to slow climate change. It seems like a paradox. Adding species to the endangered list takes the concerted effort of scientists, legislators, conservationists, and ordinary citizens. But what saves species, in the end, is human restraint, the ability to balance our needs against the needs of the rest of the lives on this planet.

We have no way of guessing how long our own kind will survive, but one thing is certain. The better the chances of survival for the plants and animals and insects you see in these photographs—and for all their endangered kin—the better our own chances will be. 

Verlyn Klinkenborg chronicles the natural world for many publications. Joel Sartore has photographed 25 Geographic stories, six on endangered species.
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