Why do we spend time and money to protect species? The bog turtle which is North American’s smallest turtle cannot be so important that we must try to protect it from extinction. This turtle is only about 4 inches long as an adult. How important can it really be?
When Congress passed the Endangered Species Act of 1973 it declared “species of fish, wildlife, and plants are of esthetic, ecological, educational, historical, recreational, and scientific value to the Nation and its people.” And not only should we protect the species, but we also need to conserve the ecosystems which these species depend.
Extinctions occur naturally, but lately the current extinction rate is occurring at a much higher rate than the past. The major cause of extinction and loss of biodiversity is habitat loss. Additional threats is the introduction of invasive species, over-exploitation and environmental pollution. The greatest threats to the critically endangered bog turtle are the loss, degradation and fragmentation of its habitat from wetland alteration, development, pollution, invasive species and advanced plant growth. The species is also threatened by poaching—collection for illegal wildlife trade.
John Muir, co-founder of the Sierra Club, said “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” All living things are part of a complex network of food webs which all together make up our biosphere. The removal of a species from an ecosystem can set off a chain of events affecting many others. Do you recall how important a keystone species is to its ecosystem? The wolves of Yellowstone, the sea otters of the Pacific Ocean, and the flying fox of the rain forest are just a few examples of species which are so important that their loss can result in the collapse of their ecosystem.
Countless numbers of different organisms be it either plant or animal has contributed to the creation of medicines which we use today. The anti-cancer taxol was originally extracted from the bark of the Pacific yew tree. Scientists say the chemical structure which makes up taxol is so complex they would have never invented it on their own. Taxol is used to treat advanced cases of ovarian cancer and until the discovery the Pacific yew as considered a weed tree which was a pest and no use for anyone.
Do you think we would still be spraying DDT like it was an air freshener in a men’s locker room if it was not for the rapid decline of our birds of prey such as the bald eagle and the peregrine falcon? These birds served as early warning indicators that something was amiss, and we needed rapid action. We have many species which can serve as indicator species such as lichen and the eastern white pine that can detect excess ozone, sulfur dioxide, and other air pollutants. Mayflies and stoneflies are good indicators of healthy streams. The Environmental Protection Agency uses salmon as an indicator of the health of the greater Pacific Rim.
What is an endangered species lacks a known benefit to mankind, should we care? Some people believe every creature has an intrinsic value. Wildlife is also a source of inspiration. Biodiverse ecosystems have provided inspiration for writers and artists who have provided us with countless stories and artwork like that of Henry David Thoreau for his book Walden, Claude Monet for his painting The Water Lily Pond, and the many photographs of Ansel Adams.
Back to the bog turtle. Why does the bog turtle deserve protection? Bog turtles are a flagship species for wetland conservation and water quality. Bog turtles prefer headwater wetlands fed by springs which are clean and highly oxygenated. These headwater wetlands feed into streams and rivers which provide essential habitat for many other species. Like the decline in the bald eagle populations, the decline of the bog turtle is indicating to us we are losing these essential wetland habitats and all of the ecosystem services they provide such as purifying water, recharging underground aquifers, and absorbing floodwaters. The wetlands preferred by the bog turtle are also home to many rare plants and animals like the American woodcock and the dragon’s mouth orchid.
The next time someone says, why should we care about protecting species I hope you now have a response you can provide to them. Remember, ignorance is our enemy.