The philosophy of protection
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, there are 65 listed endangered species in the state of Virginia -- 15 plants and 50 animals.
Thursday, November 19, 2009 - 15:28
ALL WORK, NO PLAY: Newly hatched sea turtle makes its way to sea. (Photo: minds-eye/Flickr)
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, there are 65 listed endangered species in the state of Virginia -- 15 plants and 50 animals. In perusing the list, several names jump off the page: gray bat, puma, Hawksbill sea turtle, Kemp's ridley sea turtle, humpback whale, right whale and red-cockaded woodpecker.
The threatened and endangered faunal species list compiled by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries is lengthier, listing 83 faunal species as state endangered. One of the most varied groups, in fact, is mollusks; thirty different species are listed. There are several groups operating in and near Virginia who seek to save state and federally listed species, but that's not a great surprise since northern Virginia is essentially an extension of D.C. itself, hub of many nonprofits that operate all over the nation.
Hunt to save species
If you were to type in "save sea turtles" in your next Google search, you would get 1,220,000 hits. Pictures of turtles pop up everywhere, along with several organizations set on saving them, donation pages and eco-tour advertisements. Do the same for right whales, and there are 6,330,000 hits, complete with adoption links and Facebook groups to join. Type in "save Virginia round-leaf birch" however, and the return is much less impressive: 5,130 hits mostly focused on information about the tree, rather than any indication on how you could save it. This leads to the Virginia Native Plant Society webpage, a group dedicated to preserving and appreciating Virginia's native plants and habitats. But there's nothing on their page, or any others for that matter, devoted just to saving the round-leaf birch.
Overall, the varied search responses bring up an interesting question of appeal, or likeability, of species. In other words, the larger and cuter a species is, the more likely it is to stir feelings of protection and passion from humans. Big cats, elephants and bears are all large and dangerous, but they also have a loyal following regardless of endangerment status. Ask about a Cumberland monkeyface (pearlymussel), however, and the passions are much less intense.
New law, new test
In 1978, a case went before the United States Supreme Court, TVA v. Hill, 437 U.S. 153. To date, it is considered a significant case testing the reach of the Endangered Species Act. What does this have to do with turtles and whales? Nothing. It had everything to do, however, with a snail darter. The facts, in brief, are these: the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) was constructing a dam in the Little Tennessee River, when a University of Tennessee ichthyologist discovered Percina tanasi, an unknown species of perch, which lived in the very stretch of river the dam was in. Completion of the dam would very likely eradicate the newly discovered snail darter or destroy its limited habitat. Dam construction was halted and litigation ensued. Yes, a three-inch fish stopped a several million dollar dam project.
After lengthy (and interesting) discussion, the Supreme Court held, in a 6:3 vote, to uphold what they determined was Congressional intent in passing the ESA; the Tellico dam project was to be halted. The case didn't stop there, however. It went before the God Squad for further consideration. The God Squad is a committee of cabinet-level individuals that essentially get to choose what genetic lines will be sacrificed for progress. Surprisingly, the God Squad voted against the dam as well. Don't be enchanted, though. The committee made it clear that it wasn't because of a three-inch fish that the project should be halted, but because it was an ill-conceived and atrocious plan to begin with. Fast forward to 1979, and a rider is attached to a bill, very quietly, and the bill is passed. The rider: to complete and operate the Tellico dam.
The entire population of the snail darter has since been lost. Some were transplanted to a nearby area where other darters of a different species maintained smaller populations, but the rest were left to find life only in law books and 30-year-old newspaper articles.
The case brought up an interesting question, however: at what point are humans willing to save other species? Should all species be saved? And with human effects on every Earth system, how are humans to know which species should be saved and which should be left to go extinct, as the natural order has selected for millions of years?
Something to consider
The Virginia round-leaf birch was the first tree to be listed on the Endangered Species Act. It was first written about by botanist W. W. Ashe in 1918. The tree then mysteriously vanished. It wasn't until 1975 that the tree was "rediscovered" in the woods of southwest Virginia. As of 2008, only eight individual trees survive in the wild, in its natural habitat. The rest all reside in botanical gardens. Some postulate that the tree is on its way to natural extinction. Others postulate that the failure to reproduce in the wild is an indication of habitat stress caused by humans, which mandates some human intervention to prevent permanent loss.
Ultimately, it becomes a question of philosophy, in determining the limits of human intervention and natural selection. To date, most decisions to help or save struggling species come down to money. Most people look at a photo of a little turtle fighting the sand and waves, striving for life in the ocean, and know something must be done. But do they feel the same looking at a tree, which to an untrained eye, looks like some other trees you've seen in your own backyard? The question is not answerable. There may never be a precise line at which humans know that nature has decided to take her course, absent of human influence, because everything that happens now has a human influence, a human touch. While most think of the destruction humans cause, the very act of saving has its own independent consequence. Should there be no protection because of the unknown? Or are the risks worth trying anyway? We will never know.