On Thursday, the National Wildlife Federation, the American Fisheries Society, and The Wildlife Society released a report finding that up to a third of America’s wildlife species are vulnerable because of human activity. A fifth of all U.S. species are “imperiled and at high risk of extinction.”
It sounds dire, but there are also solutions and reasons for hope.
According to the report, this crisis extends well beyond species officially listed as endangered, and now includes many garden variety creatures from monarch butterflies to songbirds. In total, the report says, some 12,000 species across the country are “in need of conservation action.”
To compare, just 1,600 U.S. species already receive protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Loss of species is not the only concern, but also loss of individual animals. This finding mirrors a global crisis: Approximately half of the world’s wild vertebrates have been lost over the past 40 years, according to a 2014 report by the World Wildlife Fund. The conclusions of the new report are based on conservation status assessments carried out by NatureServe, an online conservation and biodiversity data tool.
“Species are increasingly at risk in all regions of the country and across all categories of wildlife,” John McDonald, president of The Wildlife Society, said in a statement.
The report lists habitat loss and degradation, invasive species, disease, and chemical pollution as the leading wildlife threats, with climate change as a major amplifier of existing threats.
More than half of the country’s wetlands have vanished, and up to two thirds of the lower 48 states’ land may be degraded or developed, according to the report. “The large-scale conversion of natural lands to human-dominated uses has severely reduced suitable habitat available for many species,” it states.
Invasive species are also spreading across the country and wreaking havoc by degrading habitat and competing with or preying on native wildlife. For example, Asia’s emerald ash borer, first found in the U.S. fifteen years ago, has since killed hundreds of millions of native ash trees, wreaking havoc on forest ecosystems.
As far as climate change goes, that’s a problem that’s only going to get worse as precipitation patterns change, creating new and increased risks of drought and flooding, and as sea level rise creeps up the coastlines. The effects on individual species remain mostly unknown, but are likely to ripple throughout ecosystems. For instance a recent study found that national parks will see a profoundly different makeup of bird species in coming decades, with untold ecological consequences.
To address all these challenges, more funding is needed—a lot more. Total conservation spending over the past 15 years has met only about one-third of species’ needs, according to the report. And a mere five percent of ESA species have received around 80 percent of the total recovery funding over that time period.
But when people do take concerted action, the report notes that threatened species can recover and even thrive.
For example, since Colorado started reintroducing lynxes two decades ago, the solitary cats have developed a healthy population of around 150-250 across the state’s wilderness. Wood duck, elk, and wild turkey have also flourished over the past several decades, according to the report, thanks in part to new legal protections.
“America’s wildlife are in crisis and now is the time for unprecedented on-the-ground collaboration,” Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, said in a statement. “We owe it to our children and grandchildren to prevent these species from vanishing from the earth.”
The report notes that over 150 American species are already extinct, including the once-iconic passenger pigeon, and the Carolina parakeet. If we do nothing, these may just be the first casualties.