When the topic of endangered species comes up, the American bald eagle becomes a very sexy bird. No other animal epitomizes the plight and importance of the Endangered Species Act of 1973 quite like our national icon. Other big attention grabbers are the grizzly bear and gray wolf.
A fuzzy Wyoming native finds an ally
Until I spent some time talking with Mr. Duane Short from the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance
, a local non-profit organization in Laramie, Wyo., working towards the protection of wild spaces and wild species
, I had no idea the Wyoming pocket gopher was such an imperiled little creature. Mr. Short, wild species program director for the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, explained that Wyoming is the only place this little guy can be found. In fact, since the known habitat of the Wyoming pocket gopher is so limited, Duane Short successfully wrote and submitted a petition
to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to review whether or not the Wyoming pocket gopher deserves protection under federal law; a decision from USFWS should be out in April 2010.
The reason behind the Wyoming pocket gopher's limited numbers remains a bit unclear. While research is still needed on the species, some theories speculate that there may not have been many Wyoming pocket gophers to begin with or the species is out-competed by larger northern pocket gopher populations thriving in areas with more fertile soils. But despite needed research, the present threats are obvious. According to Duane Short, there are currently three different oil and gas projects slated to occur in Wyoming pocket gopher territory. One of these projects is already under way, raising concerns about road construction, soil disturbances and potential pollution of groundwater. If the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finds the Wyoming pocket gopher in need of protection under the Endangered Species Act, an important next step will be determining "critical habitat" for the species.
Short noted, "when the number of Wyoming pocket gophers discovered in this year's intense surveys can be counted on one's hands and toes (about 20) and existing oil wells in the gopher's range number thousands and tens of thousands of wells are slated for development, it does not take a rocket scientist or certified public accountant to perceive the threats these tiny mammals are facing."
Much is still unknown. And if the Wyoming pocket gopher happens to vanish from Wyoming before the Feds can step in to help, behavioral and genetic questions will remain unanswered. There is a need to understand the Wyoming pocket gopher better -- especially since the species spends so much time underground. Who feeds on them? What environmental role do their tunnels play? What don't we know about subterranean life? And how exactly have they come to live in such a restricted area? These are questions that can only be answered if the species sticks around.
Have you ever played the game Kerplunk?
When asked why biodiversity is important, why we need animals like the Wyoming pocket gopher, Duane Short chuckled slightly and told me how he explains biodiversity to the elementary school groups he teaches on occasion. His analogy involves a game called Kerplunk. Perhaps you have played it. But if you haven't, or if your memory needs a little jogging like mine did, it goes something like this: there is a plastic tube and in the middle of the tube approximately twenty to thirty thin swizzle sticks are placed through holes in order to hold up a hefty pile of marbles. Then the game begins. One by one, each player pulls out a stick. With each stick, the marbles become more and more precariously balanced until one unfortunate person pulls the stick that causes all the marbles to fall to the bottom of the plastic tube. Kerplunk!
This game sums up the importance of biodiversity. From the American bald eagle to the American burying beetle
, each species is as important as the next. And while we keep losing species -- a few here, a few there -- it may just take one more to make all the marbles fall.
More work ahead
The U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife has roughly 20 species listed as either endangered or threatened in the state of Wyoming
. And the stories are wide-ranging. There's the black-footed ferret and the Wyoming toad
. There are fish such as the bonytail chub, humpback chub and razorback sucker. The list also includes rare plants like the desert yellowhead and blowout penstemon. Each species has its own story, and each story is important in its own merit.
But even though progress is being made regarding the federal protection of certain species, and groups such as the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance continue to be a "voice for the wild," Duane Short left me with some hard-hitting final insights. He explained that as development expands, habitats become encroached upon, and the search for resources continues, more and more species are feeling the pressures each day. Population numbers are going down at ever-quickening rates
While there are many species already protected under federal law, "there are so many that aren't listed that should be considered for protection."