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We are a part of the web of life

Jun 15, 2024 | 6:37 am ET
By Anne Millbrooke
We are a part of the web of life
Male passenger pigeon (extinct) (mount, public display, Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by James St. John | CC-BY-SA 2.0)

Biodiversity is simply the web of life that includes us. Montana lists more than 300 species at risk or potentially at risk. That is evidence that the global biodiversity crisis is a Montana crisis as well. 

This crisis calls for a national biodiversity strategy.

Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon introduced in the Senate a resolution to create a national biodiversity strategy, S. Res. 494: “A resolution expressing the need for the Federal Government to establish a national biodiversity strategy for protecting biodiversity for current and future generations.”

Representative Joe Neguse of Colorado introduced it in the House, H. Res. 195. 

Creating a national biodiversity strategy would encourage decisionmakers to consider the impact of projects on native species. Such a nonregulatory approach could preempt species becoming threatened or endangered.

 The state of Montana currently lists 226 species of concern, native animals that breed in the state and that are considered to be at risk. The list is online. The state has also identified nearly a hundred species potentially at risk.

As a past president of the Sacajawea Audubon Society, I use bird examples, and I have a lot to choose from as there are 65 species of birds among Montana’s 226 species identified by the state as being at risk. The greater sage-grouse, chestnut-collared longspur, evening grosbeak, bobolink, and pileated woodpecker are among the species at risk.

The last documented passenger pigeon sighting in Montana was in 1882. A hunter from Fort Benton brought those dead birds to town. The species went totally extinct in 1914. 

By 1882, the “pigeon” shoots popular in Montana communities had turned from releasing passenger pigeons as targets to using rock pigeons, sparrows, and other birds, and glass balls due to the shortage of live birds; clay pigeons were just entering use. 

The then-popular dish “plover on toast” became any small bird on toast. 

This was during the bird population crash in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The United States lost over a third of its total number of birds.

As the passenger pigeon populations declined, hunters turned to Eskimo curlews and other birds. Flocks of Eskimo curlews used to appear in Montana each spring on their northward migration, but the species went extinct in the 1930s. The heath hen also went extinct in the ’30s.

Now, we are in the midst of another bird population crash. At least three billion birds, about a third of all birds in North America, have disappeared since 1970. 

And it’s not just birds. Human activities have decimated animal populations. Worldwide more than half of all wild animals have disappeared since 1970. 

In Montana the piping plover and whooping crane are receiving federal protection under the Endangered Species Act, which is good because the act works. In 2021 the interior least tern was delisted because the population had recovered sufficiently. Earlier the bald eagle and peregrine falcon had been delisted due to successful recovery under the Endangered Species Act.

The Endangered Species Act is a safety net, a remedy of last resort. This federal law kicks in only when state, local, and private conservation efforts have failed to protect a species’s population from declining too much. 

But recovery of threatened and endangered species is expensive. The act requires identifying species threatened or endangered, planning recovery, implementing a recovery plan, continuing recovery efforts, assessing the progress toward recovery, and monitoring any species removed from the list for several years to ensure its continued wellbeing. 

When a project is still in the planning stage, considering its possible impact on native species could help avoid population crashes, mitigate crashes in progress, and save species before their populations fall dangerously low. 

In many ways, such as creating the world’s first national park (Yellowstone, 1872), establishing national forest reserves (1891), and passing the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (1918), the United States has been a leader in conservation. 

But now, 193 nations have a national biodiversity strategy, and we do not. We need one.

 Biodiversity matters. Each and every species, in my opinion, is the equivalent of a canary in a coal mine. If a species dies off, then our human species is diminished, perhaps indirectly, perhaps directly.

Different species filter water, pollinate plants, spread seeds, and perform other ecological services. For example: The magpie, crow, and raven eat roadkill and thereby buffer us from zoonotic diseases. 

Biodiversity is good for our economy—for our outdoor recreation and tourism economies, for our agricultural economy, for our communities, and for ourselves.

The sad irony is that human activities cause most of the threats to species. The main threats are habitat loss, pollution, over-exploitation, climate change, and invasive species. These threaten Homo sapiens, us, as well as other species.

Please urge the Montana’s four delegates to Congress to co-sponsor the resolution calling for a national biodiversity strategy. 

Ask them to protect our biodiversity, the web of life that includes us.

Anne Millbrooke is a historian living in Bozeman.

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