Conservation author Aldo Leopold said, “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering,” but a new United Nations report shows the Earth has lost too many parts of nature for anyone to tinker intelligently.
On Monday, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services released a massive report detailing how human activity has wiped out hundreds of species and threatens to drive another million species extinct over the next few decades if people keep carrying on as usual.
The devastation is worldwide, so it’s fitting that hundreds of experts from 50 countries came to Paris last week to finalize the first intergovernmental effort to try to stop the loss of species diversity.
The landmark IPBES Global Assessment Report reviewed information from 15,000 scientific and government sources that documented manmade changes since the 1970s, including rapid population growth, the increase in extractive industries, pollution, suburban sprawl and climate change.
While the human population has almost tripled to nearly 8 billion since 1960, other species’ populations have dwindled or winked out altogether.
In most major land habitats, the abundance of native species, including plants, declined by at least 20 percent. Sage grouse are a prime example in the American West. They were considered for endangered species protection in 2015 after sod-busting, cattle grazing, mining, oil and gas drilling and wildfires caused their habitat to decrease by almost a half since 1960.
Some of the species that have been lost include domestic species, as industrial farming forces the development of monocultures.
In the oceans, a third of all marine mammals and reef-forming corals are threatened. Reports of coral bleaching and dying on the Great Barrier Reef near Australia are increasing because of oceans warmed by climate change.
Insect species are difficult to track, but scientists have recently tried to raise the alarm about the decline in insect abundance, often due to chemical use in agriculture. Some Montanans have noticed that they have to clean their windshields less often in the summer. That’s troubling because insects serve many purposes, from pollinating food plants and aiding in decomposition to feeding birds and other small animals.
As each strand of the web of life is lost, less remains to hold the rest of the world together. Indigenous people understand that, which is why the IPBES included indigenous issues. While people have significantly altered about three-quarters of the land and two-thirds of the ocean environments, the report acknowledges the trends have been less severe or avoided in areas held or managed by indigenous peoples and local communities.
“It doesn’t come as a surprise to us,” said Tom McDonald, manager of the Confederate Salish and Kootenai Tribes Division of Fish, Wildlife, Recreation. “It’s just our value system where all fish and wildlife, all living things, have a spirit and you have to treat them with respect. If you take something, you have to give something back.”
The CSKT manage nature differently than the state of Montana and have led the way in recovering some species, such as trumpeter swans. But they still have to follow state and federal laws, some of which don’t sit so well, coming from governments that have helped eliminate species in the past.
McDonald said the tribes would like to help recover several species important to tribal culture, including bull trout, golden eagles, bison and grizzly bears. In the last century, white men hunted the latter two almost to extinction. Now, state law limits where bison can roam.
“We’d love to see grizzlies restored where they should be. It’s not fair to not restore grizzlies in the Bitterroot. Just because somebody doesn’t want to run into a bear because they’ve removed them for the past 100 years doesn’t make it right,” McDonald said.
In addition to documenting species losses, the report fingers the top five human causes of species decline: changes in land and sea use, direct exploitation, climate change, pollution and invasive species.
With a population of a million people, Montana is still home to some threatened species, so it’s doing better than some places. But the last 50 years have brought a lot of change to the Treasure State, including about 300,000 more people.
As more people have moved into the wildland-urban interface, conflict has resulted and wildlife has been pushed farther into the mountains. Fortunately, Montana has several wilderness areas that act as refuges for some wildlife and plant species.
Research ecologist Travis Belote of the Wilderness Society in Bozeman remembers seeing a map produced by the Global Human Footprint showing the amount of human impact on each continent and he was stunned. But instead of bemoaning the highly degraded areas colored in red, he looked at the green areas that represented areas least affected and thus the most wild.
“That’s what a lot of our research is: identifying where the wildest places are and what their ecological value is for wildlife and for allowing species that are sensitive to human degradation to persist and move,” Belote said. “If you destroy or fragment their habitat, species can’t survive.”
Wilderness advocates think it’s crucial to protect those larger wild areas that provide a home for a wide array of plants and animals, and this study backs them up.
Protected areas are especially critical, with new technology adding to the problem. More off-road vehicles roar down Forest Service roads and trails, while more boats skim lakes and rivers, often bringing invasive organisms with them, such as knapweed, cheat grass and cinquefoil. Bucket biologists introduce their favorite fish to lakes, where they interfere with native fish.
Meanwhile, climate change exacerbates the situation by changing conditions faster than most native species can adapt. Those that depend on cold winters and that can’t migrate long distances may eventually perish.
That’s why Endangered Species Coalition Northern Rockies representative Derek Goldman of Missoula thinks cold-adapted species such as wolverines and pikas should be listed under the Endangered Species Act. They’re already facing environmental challenges, so the habitat that remains for them should be protected, Goldman said.
“In the U.S., the ESA is our main tool. It requires the government not to destroy habitat and there’s a duty to try and recover the species,” Goldman said. “The big thing that strikes me, as this report highlights how dire the situation is, the Trump administration and the new Interior Secretary Bernhardt are in the process of finalizing rules gutting the ESA and, in particular, species at risk due to climate change.”
Sir Robert Watson, IBPES chair, said that people depend on other organisms more than many realize. But sadly, through actions driven by corporate profits or personal gain, we are “eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”
“The Report also tells us that it is not too late to make a difference, but only if we start now at every level from local to global,” Watson said in an IBPES release. “Through ‘transformative change,’ nature can still be conserved, restored and used sustainably – this is also key to meeting most other global goals.”
That won’t be easy. Watson predicts that those vested in the status quo – mining and oil and gas companies, developers, plastic manufactures – would strongly oppose such change. Transformative change is big, a massive reorganization of technological, economic and social factors, especially when it comes to values.
The report outlines several options to bring about such change, but mainly it emphasizes that more parts of the economy should work together. Policies and management decisions should consider the trade-offs of food and energy production, infrastructure, freshwater and coastal management, and biodiversity conservation.
If such big changes aren’t made worldwide, nature will continue to collapse.
“The essential, interconnected web of life on Earth is getting smaller and increasingly frayed,” said Professor Josef Settele of Germany in the IBPES release. “This loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world.”
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org.