“The Earth has Half as Many Animals as it did in 1970.”
“Are We Getting Used to Less Wildlife?”
These two headlines caught my attention this week. The first is from a High Country News story; the second aired on the BBC Radio program Shared Planet.
The High Country News article cites a World Wildlife Fund study, stating: “Population sizes of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and fish have declined by 52 percent over the last 40 years.” (www.hcn.org/articles/the-earth-has-half-as-many-animals-as-it-did-in-1970).
The statistic is shattering, as if the world is collapsing beneath us. Or maybe not “as if”. And the collapse is created by humans.
In the American West, we can cheer that wolves are back, grizzly populations are expanding, and that megafauna has recovered at least a bit in many places. But that is all relative. Bison were close to extinction and now number 500,000 in North America, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society. Sounds good. But WCS also notes that only 20,000 of those animals are considered wild. Nothing compared to what was.
Which leads to the next story. Each generation knows only what it sees. History fades. Memories become stories that become lost. No one expects to see millions of bison roaming freely across vast plains. Living beings, entire species drop off the planet. Do people notice? The Shared Planet episode asks, “Is each generation getting used to living with less and less wildlife?” (www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04hvxb9). Does 50% fewer creatures on the planet make a dent in our awareness?
The High Country News story notes this phenomenon as well: “Scientists call these sliding standards ‘shifting baseline syndrome,’ the process of ecological forgetting that causes each generation, ignorant of past abundance, to embrace as natural its degraded present.”
A friend just told me about a Montana river where he used to watch eagles when the fish spawned. Now, due to human impacts, the fish are mostly gone from that river – and so are the eagles. My friend remembers it, and mourns the loss. The next generation won’t hold that memory.
In these pages I often write of the wildlife and beauty that surround me, how lush and alive this landscape is, here on the edge of Yellowstone Park. But what might I have seen a thousand years ago? I have no memory. My ancestors have no memory. The people who knew this land a thousand years ago are gone, their entire culture violently uprooted, reduced. Not only animals are slipping from memory in the face of human impact.
I had hoped to end this blog with an inspirational thought, an idea for the future, or some positive comment about good work being done, a spark within the darkness. I will say – which is not a new idea, or really even an inspirational idea – that what is called for is an ecosystem approach that provides protected preserves and embraces the non-human within working and human-dominated landscapes; where all species are given space to live. An ecosystem approach may serve the wild better in the future than focusing on megafauna. Protecting the big species and their habitat does not seem to have a trickle-down effect to preserve the little critters – frogs to fish.
Yet, many people are calling for an ecosystem approach. Many groups are trying to implement such an approach. And life slips away.
Half the animals gone in 40 years.
And I can’t find that inspirational thought. I can’t find a way to end this blog on a positive note.