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Sep 9, 2019 10:50 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Tinkering With Ecosystems

Sep 9, 2019 11:12 AM

Ecosystems are complex systems composed of many different species, each reacting to perturbations or changes in complicated ways involving both positive and negative feedback loops. Homo sapiens is one of those species, unique in its dual role of having far reaching impacts on all ecosystems on the planet, and as a manager or steward of ecosystems.Our impacts in both cases, as a species utilizing ecosystem resources and as a steward “tinkering” with elements of the ecosystem, are often unforeseen. While we’ve learned much about our planet, our knowledge of all the parts of ecosystems and how they function remains quite limited. In fact, there are many parts of ecosystems here that we haven’t even identified yet!

Recognizing this is one of the key reasons for protecting species from extinction. Some people question why we should be so cautious about protecting endangered species that they’ve never even heard of before, perhaps an obscure insect or plant. Wildlife biologist and conservationist Aldo Leopold has a great quote related to this issue, one that people with no background in ecology can easily relate to.

He said, “The first rule of intelligent tinkering is to save all of the pieces.” When you are trying to repair an object, and whether or not you understand the function and purpose of each and every part of that object, do not lose any parts! The same is true for repairing and managing ecosystems, and that is one of the key reasons for the establishment of the Endangered Species Act under the Nixon administration in 1973.

That landmark law specifically required that a species’ listing as “endangered” or “threatened” be based solely on science, and not economics. After all, how would you put a dollar amount on a species whose role in their respective ecosystem may not be fully understood?

Our basic intro to biology courses are organized to teach students what is known about that field of science. All the things that remain a mystery are rarely discussed, and this unfortunately can leave the impression among students that everything has been figured out.

That is far from reality among the sciences in general, and particularly in the relatively new science called ecology.

The Trump administration decided that the Endangered Species Act’s regulations needed some modernizing and better efficiency and implementation. They point out that few species have been removed from the endangered and threatened lists. This latter point is true: Since the passage of the act in 1973, over 1,650 species have been listed and just 47 have been de-listed.

However, another way to look at the numbers is to look at what percentage of species listed have actually gone extinct. That number is 99 percent.

There are problems with the Endangered Species Act’s implementation, there’s no question about that. One of the biggest problems is a lack of funding for the program. This has created a backlog of species awaiting a determination for listing. Another problem is that there is currently no deadline for creating effective recovery plans once a species is listed, resulting in many listed species having no recovery plan.

Here on Long Island, the Endangered Species Act has been instrumental in restoring populations of bald eagles, humpback whales and peregrine falcons. Between 1932 and 2005, there were no bald eagle nests on the island. Today, the island has eight nesting pairs. Most of the bridges in the metropolitan New York area today are nesting sites (over 20 now) for the peregrine falcon. And over the past few summers, Long Islanders have enjoyed watching humpback whales along our ocean beaches.

All these recoveries were the result of many years of hard work, well-crafted recovery plans and funding. Does the Trump administration recognize that? Apparently not. Their revisions revolve around making it easier to open up federal lands to oil, gas, mining, ranching and farming industries, all interest groups for which Trump’s secretary of the interior, David Bernhardt, worked for as a lobbyist prior to his appointment.

Economics will now play a prominent role in the listing process, and the potential impact of climate change can no longer be considered in that process. It is interesting to look over the extensive lists of groups and organizations that support this change and those who oppose it.

Environmental groups have filed a lawsuit over these changes, and are encouraging the public to weigh in with their respective congressional representatives on this issue.

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