On Thin Ice: An In-Depth Look at Endangered Species

Published May 20, 2014

With overflowing landfills, the use of harmful chemicals in agriculture and a reliance on unsustainable energy sources, among other factors, the human population’s carbon footprint is ever-expanding. From melting polar ice caps to ocean acidification, the environmental impact is becoming increasingly evident.

The implications of a species disappearing reach far beyond the loss of a single organism. Extinction occurs when the last individual of a species dies, and the disappearance of just one plant or animal can have a cascading effect on an ecosystem.

Leveraging Legislation

On December 28, 1973, Congress passed a monumental piece of legislation—the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the ESA was enacted to protect and restore populations threatened with extinction and their critical habitats.

More than 1,500 species are currently recognized as threatened or endangered by the ESA. The ESA prevents the “take” of those listed species from their habitat and limits trade and poaching of endangered species.

The ESA is a federal law, but it has the benefit of trickling down to state level. States, in many cases, create additional legislation to further the protection of species deemed to be endangered or threatened within their state boundaries.

Simple Changes

Too often the focus of the conversation of endangered species is the harm humans have on the environment. More important, however, is that simple behavioral changes can go a long way toward caring for and reviving the natural world.

Take palm oil.

This vegetable oil, a substitute for the partially hydrogenated oils that contain trans fats, can be found in everything from cereals and canned soups to baby formula and cosmetics. Through everyday purchases, many of us may be perpetuating the destruction of a habitat that boasts some of the greatest species diversity on Earth.

Palm oil plantations are popping up across Indonesia, Malaysia and other countries at the expense of tropical forests. The many species that depend on these forests, including endangered orangutans, face extreme peril.

Something as simple as checking the ingredients before purchase could help save a species thousands of miles away.

A Global Connection

A healthy habitat is one of the most important factors when it comes to protecting endangered species. Under the ESA, regions can be designated as “critical habitat,” or areas essential to the survival of a species, but here is where it gets tricky.

Labeling an area critical habitat does not necessarily prevent the further development of that land. Essentially, the designation serves as a reminder to federal agencies to take extra precautions, even to modify projects, in order to minimize harm to these vital natural spaces.

From the water we drink to the air we breathe, humans rely on healthy ecosystems, and every species contained in an ecosystem plays an integral role in the success of that network.

A Proactive Approach

Not every species will be as lucky as the gray wolf, but it is not all doom and gloom. The diamondback terrapin, for example, though never listed as an endangered species in Maryland, has a history of exploitation.

In the 19th century, terrapins were considered a delicacy and hunted for their use in stews. The demand for the terrapin, combined with other factors, caused their numbers to drop dangerously low.

Recognizing the risk, Maryland passed a law in 2007 ending the commercial harvest of terrapins in state waters. And while it is too soon to quantify the impact, alleviating pressure on a struggling population is a step in the right direction.

Bald eagles, American alligators, the Virginia northern flying squirrel, grizzly bears—there have been numerous success stories. In the best circumstances, a species will be “de-listed” from the ESA, meaning the population recovers to a point where it no longer requires protection under the law.

Do Your Part

Here are a few ways to show you care about the world’s endangered species, no matter where you live:

  1. Be a conscious consumer - Purchase products that are organic, locally grown or sustainably sourced.
  2. Back legislation that impacts the environment - Every comment counts, so if there is an issue you support, call or write a letter to your representative. Learn more about the National Aquarium’s legislative priorities at aqua.org/legislation.
  3. Contribute to a conservation organization - Provide financial support if you can. If you don’t have money to give, donate your time! Visit aqua.org/care to learn about opportunities in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
  4. Start in your own backyard - Planting native plants in your garden will attract native wildlife, including invaluable pollinators that help to preserve the natural environment.
  5. Reduce, reuse, recycle - Join our 48 Days of Blue movement and learn how simple actions can make a big difference in protecting our natural world!
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