Ecosystems dying despite species act

A little Arizona owl with the law on its side threatens new development that would turn more desert into a suburb. That owl, though, is only a local issue. The law that protects it has been thrust, again, into the national limelight. What’s at stake is not just the protection of a single species, accomplished through 85 lawsuits filed against Arizona developers, ranchers and the government by the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity. The issue is endangered ecosystems, and beyond this, an endangered planet. The owl, which resembles a feathered Beanie Baby, might survive for the next few years. But its desert home has few friends, and when asphalt and plywood flow in where dunes once rippled, the owl will lose. So will the other species whose habitat is in critical condition.
In Minnesota, another endangered species, the gray wolf, has been demonized with stories about cattle and turkey massacres, pet attacks and frightened hunters. Just how much damage wolves cause to ranchers’ livestock is negligible at best, despite over-exaggerated reports of predation. Nor are there any verifiable reports of anyone ever being attacked or harmed by a wolf in North America. Unlike the owls, wolves are on their way out of endangered status. Sometimes threatened species can be saved. But legal protection for endangered species is a Band-Aid solution that gets lucky sometimes. The North Woods are vast and face relatively little human population pressure. Most species aren’t so fortunate as to live beyond the reach of suburbia.
Some scorners of environmentalism scoff at the significance of small raptors or frightening canines. Most animals, in the view of some humans, are like wild furniture, to be discarded when demanded by human development. Ranchers, developers and other profit-seekers are often blind to the balance of nature and literally do not see the forest for the trees. So, in many ways, are many environmentalists. Saving a few owls, at the price of a road and several houses, neither helps the earth nor satisfies human needs. And calling the reintroduction of wolves a success is typically human hubris. Minnesota’s North Woods was never a very threatened ecosystem.
Arizona’s desert faces pressures that go above and beyond the ability of a species-centered law to resist. The owls are predators that hunt smaller species. While the owls can be localized to a few square miles and that land set aside, development threatens the survival of local plants. Without desert flora, the minor fauna upon which the owl feeds is depleted. Eventually, the desert will die and the owls will follow, owl preserves notwithstanding. Arizona’s desert, more than its owls, deserves legal protection. As the wolves show, saving the animals is easy when the ecosystem survives.
The Endangered Species Act of 1973 is insufficient. We need an Endangered Ecosystems Act. If such maladies as nuclear waste, pollution, ozone depletion and greenhouse gasses continue in addition to greed and carelessness, we may need an Endangered Humans Act in the not too distant future. There is a bigger wolf — with a little bird on his shoulder — knocking at our door.