Why Should We Care About Endangered Species?


by Andrea Hartley

The extinction of a species happens naturally.  It occurs due to a change in environmental conditions and the rate of this change is referred to as the background rate.   All species will eventually become extinct.  The problem that we face today is the premature extinction of many species, which is occurring because of man’s interference.  “Scientists from around the world published the 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, estimated that the current annual rate of species extinction is a at least 100 to 1,000 times the background rate of about 0.0001% which existed before modern humans appeared…”It is projected that during this century the extinction rate  will increase to 10,000 times the background rate. Why is premature extinction a problem?   To interrupt the earth’s natural patterns is to interrupt our whole ecosystem.  All living things are inter-dependant and rely on each other to grow and thrive in their own habitat.  If that natural habitat is degraded, all life is impacted, beyond what people have been able to see on the surface.

According to www.endangeredspecie.com the impact to humans include medicinal, agricultural, ecological, commercial aesthetic/recreation.  For example, life-saving drugs like digitalis and taxol, as well as food, are derived from plants. “Humans depend on ecosystems such as coastal estuaries, prairie grasslands, and ancient forests to purify their air, clean their water and supply them with food.  When species become endangered, it is an indicator of the declining health of these vital ecosystems is beginning to unravel.  The US Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that losing one plant species can trigger the loss of up to 30 other insect, plant and higher animal species.”  This web site is an excellent resource since it describes the problem as well as offers opportunities for everyone to get involved in helping endangered species.

Many are not interested in helping to solve this problem.  In fact, some even work to make it worse.

“Around the globe, nature is dying and the prices of her rarest works are going up.” writes Bryan Christy in National Geographic magazine, p84 Jan. 2010 article, The Kingpin.   He describes the arrest of Anson Wong, a notorious smuggler of endangered species.  Sadly he spent minimal time in jail and in his absence, his wife carried on their”business”.  He boasted that he could get anybody anything that they wanted, endangered or not.  Christy went on to say that Wong had made a remark that journalists who uncover things that people don’t want uncovered could wind up dead.  Christy exhibited great courage in writing the article and it was very informative.

Not all humans responsible for extinctions or endangered species are deliberately doing so for monetary gain.    Michael L. Rosenzweig writes in his book Win-Win Ecology: How the Earth’s species can survive in the midst of human enterprise writes about the Polynesian colonization activates.   “Again and again, mass extinctions followed swiftly upon the heels of Polynesian colonization in one after another Pacific archipelago.  Hawaii was the rule, not the exception.”  He described how many centuries ago, the Pacific islanders migrated to Hawaii, Ester Island, Tahiti, New Zealand and that every island that they colonized lost a huge proportion of its plant and animal species.    An example is the moas (11 different species) used for food by the Polynesian people all vanished abut a century after the Maori arrived.  Then we read about the stupidity of the first king of the Hawaiian Islands Kamehameha who ordered that 80,000 mamos (a bird, now extinct with beautiful golden feathers) be slaughtered to make him a cape made up entirely of those feathers.

Click this photo to buy the book, Win-Win Ecology, on Amazon.com

Rosenzweig’s book is an excellent read as he discusses his common sense approach to conservation called Reconciliation Ecology “which seeks environmentally sound ways for us to continue to use the land for our own benefit.”  He also refers the reader to the National Wildlife Federation’s web site where people can learn how to create a back yard habitat for local wildlife.

To summarize the problem from a scientific view, we can read  in  Living in the Environment by Miller and Spoolman,  their description of ecology on p51.  They describe it as ‘the study of how organisms interact with one another and with their physical environed of matter and energy.’  Life is sustained by this interaction they write, “Matter, in the form of nutrients, cycles within and among ecosystems and the biosphere and human activities are altering these chemical cycles.”  I particularly like what they say on p189 “We should prevent the premature extinction of wild species because of the economic and ecological service they provide and because they have a right to exist regardless of their usefulness to us..” referring to the intrinsic value of life.

We shall specifically take a look these dynamics as related to the polar bear native to Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and US state of Alaska. Finally, we shall discuss efforts made to lessen the impact of human activity on endangered species in general and the polar bear in particular.

Photograph by Norbert Rosing

Threats to Polar Bear Survival

The biggest threat to Polar bear survival is the loss of ice sea habitat.  This is a result of climate change that is occurring from global warming..    The earth heats up because of increases of concentrations of one or more greenhouse gases caused by human pollution.  Since the industrial revolution about 275 years ago, human activity has increased CO2, CH4 and N2O in the lower atmosphere.  This increase has occurred due to agriculture practices, deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels according to Miller/Spoolman.  Scientists numbering about 2500, from the world over have concluded that the earth’s climate is getting warmer because of these activities.  As a result, many things are changing.  There is evidence to prove that the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world.  Each year the average area of summer floating sea ice is decreasing leaving the polar bears with less and less area to live and hunt.  This is also an area for resting and breeding according to www.worldwildlife.org.  This is forcing them to spend summers without significant feeding times causing them to have to rely on fat stores on their bodies from the previous years.  Many polar bears are facing malnutrition and starvation.  It is particularly difficult on mothers with cubs.

In addition, because of the shrinking ice, polar bears are forced to spend more time on the land. This increased land time is causing increased contact with human activity.  Firstly, actual contacts with humans are threatening to both the human and the bear.  Secondly, Offshore petroleum installations in the aortic region, which is expected to increase, negatively affect polar bears and their habitat in many ways.   Contact with oil could be fatal, it would affect the entire food chain and noise generated from drill would cause a disturbance.  Also traffic in the water as a result of oil tankers and cargo ships also pose a threat.

Moreover, the bears are poisoned by toxic OCBs, DDT and other pesticides, which remain in fatty tissue creating health, behavior and reproductive problems.  Additionally, Russian poachers are killing about 250 bears a year.

Miller and Spoolman discuss the 2006 study by the ICUN-World Conservation Union.  It says that the world’s total polar bear population is likely to decline by 30-35% by 2050 and by the end of this century they may be only found in zoos.

The dismal facts are human activity is creating an intolerable situation for the polar bears and they cannot survive if there are no changes.     Thankfully, there are some efforts underway to help all endangered species starting with the Endangered Species Act. This act, as explained by the US Fish and Wildlife service website, has as its purpose the protection and recovery of imperiled species and the ecosystems upon which they depend.  Species may be listed as endangered which means it is in danger of extinction or threatened which means it is likely to become endangered.  This law makes it unlawful for people to take an animal that is listed.  This includes “to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap capture or collect any of these species. “.  The law’s ultimate goal is t “recover” species so they no longer need protection.  This law also” implements US participation in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species so of Wild Fauna and Flora, a 175-nation agreement designed to prevent species from becoming endangered or extinct due to international trade..  Except as allowed by permit, CITES prohibits importing or exploiting species listed…”   According to www.endangeredspecie.com “The Endangered Species Act as a whole has been quite successful in its mission of halting the decline of endangered and threatened species.  About 64% of mammal species and 68% of bird species listed in 1973 were classified as “improving and stable” by 1994.”  The author further explains, however, few species have been removed from the list because total recovery takes a long time.

Another law, The Lacey Act protects both plants and wildlife by creating civil and criminal penalties for violations. It is especially geared toward profiteering by the illegal capture and selling of wildlife, fish and plants.

There have also been many “recovery plans “designed to help.  These plans are voluntary plans which address reintroduction, habitat acquisition, captive propagation, habitat restoration and protection, population assessments, research and technical assistance for landowners and public education.  These plans should include a description of the species’ current situation, including any relevant scientific data, a recovery objective, an implementation schedule, including priorities of tasks and cost estimates and an appendix identifying appropriate external reviews of the plan.

It is a daunting task given the fact that the events of the past century must be reversed.   The recovery period may depend on the status of the species population the gestation rate of a species or other biological factors.   It is also affected by budget constraints, political pressure and limited scientific data.  The National Academy of Sciences recommended that all plans be made quantifiable and based on principles of conservation biology.  This can be accomplished, they say by having all recovery plans include “recovery plan guidance” which details how the plan should be implemented and rational, scientific evaluation of survival and recovery goals.


What is Being Done to Help Polar Bears?


Polar bear cubs. Credit: USFWS

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has designated 187,157 sq miles of on-shore and offshore habitat in northern Alaska as critical habitat. This means that the geographic area that contains features essential for the Polar Bear’s survival will be managed or protected.  This means that the destruction or adverse modification of these areas is prohibited.  Federal agencies are required to consult with the service when planning any activities that may affect the species or their critical habitat.  For private or non-federal lands  a designation of critical habitat alerts entities planning to undertake those activities which could inadvertently cause harm. or “take” to a listed species.  Causing “take” would result in penalties for the perpetrator because it would violate the Endangered Species Act.


Mother and Cubs Photo: Polar Bears International

Polar bears in the US are  are protected under the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act  (MMPA) and the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Speices of Wild Fauna and Flora CITES   Under the MMPA the recreational hunt of polar bears trophies is prohibited.  According to www.incredibleworld.ca/index.php/incredible-species-newsletter/…The Marine Mammal Management Office has been working closely with Alaskan Natives to conduct scientific studies to further aid the polar bears.  They mark and follow the bears to see how they are surviving.  A special tracking radio collar can tag only female bears because the male’s necks are too big.  Data collected reveals to scientists when a female enters a den, when she travels.  It also maps distances traveled.   The bear’s health is also monitored by taking blood, fat, tissue and hair samples to identify any toxic contamination.  The service has also been working with the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge  and local residents in the village of Kaktovik  to  reduce bear-human interactions.    “The service is also working with Alaskan natives to provide technical support for an Inupiat/Inuvialuit agreement between indigenous hunters of Alaska and Canada.  The service is participating in the US-Russia Bilateral Agreement to develop population estimates and manage subsistence harvest of this shared population   in addition, the service is taking steps to minimize bear-human interaction and the potential adverse affects.”

The MMPA designed to minimize the impact of oil and gas activity, requires providing a site-specific plan of operation and a site-specific polar bear interaction plan outlining the steps the applicant will take to minimize impact on polar bears.

One may wonder if the reduction of the greenhouse gas emissions will have a positive impact on saving the polar bear by halting the global warming responsible for the disappearing ice.     The answer is, there will be no immediate effect.  Action taken now will help to prevent potentially catastrophic climate change an may begin to show some positive effect in the next 30 to 50 years.  It is believed that the polar bear will most likely survive in the Archipelago Eco   region of Canada through the end of the century.   This means that any action taken now to reverse the greenhouse effect could prevent the polar bears from disappearing completely.

Educating people about these environmental issues is critical to foster support of them.  One great endeavor is the To The Arctic series.  This began with the award winning German photographer, Florian Shultz collaborating with Earthjustice and outdoor clothing manufacturer Patagonia to present Visions of the Arctic.  This collection of photos show the beauty of the Arctic and document the impact of industrialization and climate change on the region.  This educational campaign includes a book and a 3D movie that is being shown in Imax theaters throughout the country. “Our goal is to increase public pressure on U.S> lawmakers to expand our scientific knowledge of the Arctic and its ongoing changes before allowing more aggressive plans to exploit its resources.  This careful approach can help us develop a balanced management plan that preserves the arctic not just for this generation, but for all those to come,” writes Schultz web site http//earthjustice.org/features/campaigns/a-message-from-florian-schultz.    Royal Dutch Shell plans to begin drilling in the Arctic waters off Alaska next month.  A new report by the NGO Clean Air Task Force CATF shows that an Methane and black carbon two potent greenhouses gases will be emitted in significant amounts.   This will exacerbate our global warming problems. (Time Ecocentric 7-20-12 Bryan Walsh) This educational campaign is excellent and will help those with an interest to understand the urgency of protecting this valuable asset.  In addition,   I believe that it could have more impact if they made min-newsreels about it which were broadcast before every movie played in the theater as they did during World War II.


Global warming and human activity has affected many other species in addition to the polar bear.  There are 21 threatened and endangered plant and animal species in New Jersey.  Of that number, 16 are animals and five are plants.  One local example in New Jersey is the loggerhead turtle.  The warmer temperatures during incubation produce more female hatchlings causing an imbalance in the sex ratio. The raising sea level and beach development reduces the available nesting places.   Oil spills, beach development and collisions with boats present danger to the loggerhead.  Moreover, beachfront lighting can cause hatchlings to become disoriented and fail to reach the water.  No –wake zones in new Jersey Bays and estuaries help to minimize the risk from boats to loggerheads.  Conservation zones designated as safe habitat for the turtles are also critical to safe them Michael Davenport: Marine species and GIS program manager http://www.conservewildlifenj.org/species/spotlight/loggerhead/)


In summary, it is imperative that the word take action now to reduce greenhouse emissions and global warming, so we have a chance to save some of the endangered species of flora and fauna.  Legislators must support this endeavor.  To facilitate legislative support, the public must be educated about the risks and dangers of continuing in the course of action that lead to this problem. Increasing numbers of people must be inspired to become involved.  Penalties to profiteers who continue to exploit our environment must be increased. We must learn to live in cooperation with the environment rather than exploitation.


** find out Pennsylvania stats. check on stat of bill in Alaska





Davenport, Michael. “Atlantic Loggerhead Turtle”


Miller, G. Tyler  and Spoolman, Scott E. Living in the Environment

2007, 2009. Brooks/Cole, Cengage Learning

Rosenzweig, Michael L. Win-Win Ecology: How the Earth’s species can survive in the midst of human enterprise.

Schultz, Florian. “A Message from Florian Schultz”


Walsh, Bryan. (July 2, 2012) “The Arctic Meltdown Accelerates”

Retrieved from http://www.ecocentric.blogs.time.com/2011/05/05/the-arctic-meltdown-accelerates/