What We Lose When We Lose Wildlife

Mexican wolf. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

I grew up in Michigan — a place with many deer and very few wolves to keep their populations in-check.

Flawed wildlife management decisions caused our wolf numbers to plummet decades ago. While gray wolves are historically native to the state, the only place I’ve seen one is the Potter Park Zoo — a tiny park just outside my college campus in Lansing that cares for endangered species.

My experiences seeing wildlife are few and far between. It was only last October, years into my work at the Sierra Club, that I finally saw a Yellowstone grizzly bear in the wild. Even though I was thousands of yards away and watching with binoculars, I practically had tears in my eyes.

Yellowstone, Michigan, and Australia — where devastating bushfires have killed over a billion animals — couldn’t be farther apart in geography and ecology. Yet to me, these places share a huge piece of what connects us, and tragically what we stand to lose.

Near or far, whether we regularly see bears and bobcats in our backyards (like some of my coworkers) or make nostalgic visits to our local zoos and aquariums, people idealize and deeply care about our wildlife. Animals symbolize freedom from society’s complications, a retreat to simplicity and beauty.

That’s why it’s so painful to watch our changing climate threaten vulnerable wildlife, depriving younger generations of these transformative experiences.

Early this year, a picture of a koala clinging to a firefighter’s arms generated mass attention to the climate-fueled crisis in Australia. But as the news cycle slides from one issue to the next, I fear that our fast-paced society fails to truly comprehend the sheer loss to come with what alarmed biologists are calling “the sixth extinction.” 

The World Wildlife Fund reports that in the last 40 years, wildlife population numbers have declined by 60 percent due to climate change, loss of habitat, and other human-influenced environmental factors. The climate is changing at such a rapid rate that many species can’t adapt.

Humans certainly won’t be immune to that ourselves. Sea levels are rising, hurricanes and wildfires are wiping out homes, and pollution and disease are shortening many of our lives.

But the loss of our fellow species will harm us directly, too.

Communities that depend on tourism and outdoor recreation will lose out on the $145 billion U.S. residents spend on wildlife recreation annually. We will be deprived of the invaluable ecosystem services that wildlife provide us — like pollination, carbon sequestration, and pollution control.

But I still believe we have a fighting chance. Thanks to a strong grassroots movement, the majority of people in this country accept that climate change exists, that it is human-caused, and that inaction is no longer an option.

It is our moral responsibility to step in and find ways to contribute to the solution, and ensure the survival of threatened species that can’t do it on their own.

Scientists tell us “nature needs half” —  which means to preserve our communities, wildlife, and the environment, we must protect 50 percent of global lands by 2050. In the United States, the Sierra Club is a part of an ambitious mission to fight to protect at least 30 percent of American lands by 2030.

That means working with local communities on everything from stopping oil and gas development to protecting urban green space. It means fighting against the Trump administration’s detrimental rollbacks of Endangered Species Act protections. And it means supporting indigenous-led efforts efforts to achieve the strongest protections for animals.

These important fights will have enormous benefits for people. The climate and mass extinction crises are interwoven — but we are equipped with the solutions. It is a fight that is worth it, for today, and for generations to come.

Courtney Bourgoin is a communications coordinator for the Sierra Club’s Our Wild America campaign. She is based in Chicago.

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