We're Sharon Levy and Peter Moyle, science journalist and prof emeritus in the dept. of wildlife, fish, and conservation biology at UC Davis, respectively. We're here to answer questions about ecosystems, conservation, and the endangered species act. Ask us anything!

Abstract

Last month, I published a long-form story for Undark Magazine on a tiny, obscure fish (the Delta smelt) that's on track to become the first fish to go extinct in the wild while under the protection of the Endangered Species Act. Other species might well follow unless new strategies take hold — though whether that will happen anytime soon remains entirely unclear. As Holly Doremus, an expert on environmental law at University of California-Berkeley, told me, “We’ve not had a good national conversation about conservation goals since the 70s, and we’re overdue for one." I'm also the author of a new book with Oxford University Press that delves into the intertwined histories of wetlands loss and water pollution.

Peter Moyle, who was my main source for the Undark story, is a renowned expert on the ecology and conservation of California’s fishes, and has spent over four decades working with freshwater fishes of California. He considers the smelt’s rapid disappearance the signature of both an ecosystem, and an entire conservation strategy, desperately in crisis.

Together, we'll be here from 1 pm- 2:30 pm EST to answer questions about the Endangered Species Act, conservation strategies, wetlands and marshes, and altered habitats. Looking forward to hearing from you!

How do we get kids and young adults in the cities more interested in nature? It seems like people who have never had a lot of opportunity to experience nature struggle to see how critical our ecosystems are.
How do we balance the desires of business and profit when it comes to conservation, the ecosystems and wildlife?
What groups are most effective at the federal level when it comes to conservation and maintaining our ecosystems for future generations?

JorgeXMcKie

There are three questions....

  1. Wish I had easy answer for this question because getting kids interested in nature is not a high priority for our society. For parents, It is easier to put them in front of a computer or TV than to go to a local park. Most schools don’t have nature education programs built into the curriculum, especially in elementary schools. I find it ironic that kids often know more about dinosaurs than they know about the birds they can see out their windows. Some suggestions:

· Make the study of nature part of the regular curriculum in elementary schools, in which kids learn the names of local birds and trees, watch insects in the classroom, maintain aquaria, and have regular visits to nearby parks, zoos, and other facilities.

· Improve access to parks or create more parks in urban neighborhoods. Just having places where kids can be outdoors can help. Create areas where kids and adults can ‘mess around’ with nature such as ponds with docks, dipnets, and fishing poles.

· Better fund outreach programs of zoos, aquaria, and other facilities to increase contact with wild animals, even insects.

  1. Too big a question to answer here but the answer lies in the general region of making the private sector understand that managing the ecosystems in which we live for sustainability is ultimately better for long-term economic health. Unfortunately we live in a culture where short-term economic gain is too often valued more than long-term ‘stability’ of our natural systems.

  2. Don't have a good answer.


There is a popular (and obviously wrongheaded) argument that goes "some obscure endangered fish I've never heard of is in the way of my wonderful development project. We've taken this too far!". what are some good counterarguments to this line of thinking?

Henri_Dupont

I get asked this question a lot. It is hard to come up with responses that will be accepted because once a species is endangered it is not longer functioning an important member of a natural system and is rarely experienced by most people. Some of my responses related to delta smelt:

· The Endangered Species Act says that it is the policy of the people of the USA not to let any species go extinct, not matter how obscure. It reflects the value that people place on wildlife and the ecosystems that support them in a general sense. Polls seem to indicate that it is still a popular act especially in relation to iconic species like salmon, bears, and eagles.

· The species is an indicator of ecosystem health. As it declines so does the quality of the environment, which can directly affect human health. The delta smelt, for example, is one of six fish species that are listed under the ESA that require a properly functioning Delta ecosystem in CA, with other species in the queue for listing. These species include Chinook salmon, iconic and edible. The decline/disappearance of a whole array of native species suggests that the environment that supports them – and us- is in decline. This decline is being accelerated by climate change so it provides further urgency to deal with that problem.

· In California, most of the endangered species are endemic to the state and so they help to define the state as a special place to live. They are part of our heritage.

· Future unknown value. For example, with advances in genetics/genomics any species could contain genetic material that could be useful to us humans. I like to think that the delta smelt could be cultured on a large scale as a food fish, as similar species are in Japan.

The reality is that many of the obscure species like delta smelt could go extinct without most people noticing. Their passing will be lamented by a few and then forgotten. We should not let this happen, as least in our back yards, because we all will be better off if our natural diversity persists and thrives.

Michael Marchetti and I have written more extensively about this in a book aimed at college freshmen, which has a somewhat more optimistic attitude expressed:

Marchetti, M. P. and P. B. Moyle. 2010. Protecting life on Earth: an introduction to conservation science. Berkeley: University of California Press. 232 pp


There is a popular (and obviously wrongheaded) argument that goes "some obscure endangered fish I've never heard of is in the way of my wonderful development project. We've taken this too far!". what are some good counterarguments to this line of thinking?

Henri_Dupont

I get asked this question a lot. It is hard to come up with responses that will be accepted because once a species is endangered it is not longer functioning as an important member of a natural system and is rarely experienced by most people. Some of my responses related to delta smelt:

· The Endangered Species Act says that it is the policy of the people of the USA not to let any species go extinct, not matter how obscure. It reflects the value that people place on wildlife and the ecosystems that support them in a general sense. Polls seem to indicate that it is still a popular act especially in relation to iconic species like salmon, bears, and eagles.

· The species is an indicator of ecosystem health. As it declines so does the quality of the environment, which can directly affect human health. The delta smelt, for example, is one of six fish species that are listed under the ESA that require a properly functioning Delta ecosystem in CA, with other species in the queue for listing. These species include Chinook salmon, iconic and edible. The decline/disappearance of a whole array of native species suggests that the environment that supports them – and us- is in decline. This decline is being accelerated by climate change so it provides further urgency to deal with that problem.

· In California, most of the endangered species are endemic to the state and so they help to define the state as a special place to live. They are part of our heritage.

· Future unknown value. For example, with advances in genetics/genomics any species could contain genetic material that could be useful to us humans. I like to think that the delta smelt could be cultured on a large scale as a food fish, as similar species are in Japan.

The reality is that many of the obscure species like delta smelt could go extinct without most people noticing. Their passing will be lamented by a few and then forgotten. We should not let this happen, as least in our back yards, because we all will be better off if our natural diversity persists and thrives.

Michael Marchetti and I have written more extensively on this, with a somewhat more optimistic view in a book aimed at college freshmen:

Marchetti, M. P. and P. B. Moyle. 2010. Protecting life on Earth: an introduction to conservation science. Berkeley: University of California Press. 232 pp


We think about the world in geo-political borders. But environments are more continiuous. How much international cooperation is there in conservation efforts? Is there any change (in terms of this) that you think would be beneficial for conservation efforts?

Onepopcornman

International treaties and organizations like the IUCN provide some protections but for the most part international efforts for conservation are far less than they should be, as E.O. Wilson has documented so well. Given that conservation is largely driven by Western values, I tend to be pessimistic about conservation in much of the world, which requires managing large areas for natural values in the face of large numbers of hungry people. I have focused my own career on California because I think there is more hope for natural areas and wildlife here than in most parts of the world, despite the high economic and ecological demands of our society. North America, despite all its problems, still provides more hope for its wildlife than most of the rest of the world. If present trends continue, Alaska and northern Canada may be the last places in the world where there are still large populations of migratory fish and wildlife. Everyplace else, they will be in zoos or in small fenced preserves.


What's the solution if a predator fish without any known predators enters into a lake and messes up the whole lake ecosystem?

Hseen_Paj

What's the solution if a predator fish without any known predators enters into a lake and messes up the whole lake ecosystem?

Fish introductions into lakes, often made illegally and with good intentions, are a worldwide problem because they are so easy to do. Such introductions, especially of predatory fish, often cause valuable fisheries to decline and can drive endemic fish species to extinction because, as you say, they mess up the whole lake ecosystem. Eradication is possible only if the introduction is caught early enough, so the population is localized, or if it is made into relatively small lake. Under these circumstances fish poisons (mainly rotenone and antimycin) can be used that have minimal effects on non-fish. Such treatments can be expensive and controversial. In California, the northern pike, a voracious predator, was illegally introduced into two reservoirs in the Sierra Nevada, from which they could spread easily, with potentially devastating impacts to salmon and trout fisheries and to endemic fishes. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife was able to eradicate the pike with rotenone but faced strong local opposition by people who objected to a poison being put in their water supply and fishing lake. The last eradication took place in 2007 but last lawsuit was just settled last week (in favor of CDFW).

For the most part, however, once an undesirable fish has become established, people just have to live with it. The best that can be done usually is some sort of continuous control program, by various means, including unrestricted fisheries. The best long-term strategy is to educate the public so introductions do not occur and/or those who make illegal introductions are punished.


has anyone done an analysis of the pros and cons to introducing an endangered species to a new (less threatened) environment to maintain their population / contribution to general biological diversity vs. the cons that come along with introducing an invasive (non-native) species and the impacts that go along with that?

Debellatio

Interesting question. While reporting on the delta smelt, I learned from Peter and other ecologists about the challenges of managing endangered species in novel ecosystems--where the habitat has been so thoroughly transformed by human actions that it becomes hostile to endemic species. The Sacramento-San Joaquin delta, the home of the delta smelt, is a prime example. One of the many problems there is that the ecosystem is now dominated by introduced species. I think we need to think long and hard about moving species around, because historically people have caused a lot of damage this way.

There is a school of thought that advocates "Pleistocene rewilding." The idea is that North America lost many of its large mammals at the end of the last Ice Age, in part due to the impacts of human hunters colonizing the continent. Pleistocene rewilders have advocated bringing African elephants and lions and Asian camels to North America to replace the lost mammoths, mastodons, American lions, saber-toothed cats, and American camels that once roamed here. This is an intensely controversial idea. I think we need to focus on managing the world we have as best we can, rather than striving to recreate the past.

--Sharon


what do you think will work better in the future for dealing with the issues:

  • top-down pressure
  • grassroots pressure

?

veganinromania

It definitely takes both. But you don't get top-down pressure unless the grassroots are demanding it. Here's a great quote from William Ruckelshaus, two-time director of the EPA:

"[Nixon] created EPA for much the same reason Reagan invited me to return to the agency in 1983, because of public outrage about what was happening to the environment. Not because Nixon shared that concern, but because he didn't have any choice."

--Sharon


Hi, I'm just curious about efforts made towards the conservation of these endangered species. Is there any specific method used to preserve animals when they are labeled endangered (Ex. Help them proliferate in a controlled environment)? Or do scientists just keep a close eye on these species but leave them be in the wild? Also, what are some long term consequences of having animals go extinct? Thanks!

dc333827806

In the U.S., a number of strategies have been used. With the gray wolf, for example, the US Fish & Wildlife Service brought wolves from Canada to Yellowstone National Park and Idaho to re-establish populations there, with great success (and great controversy). In the case of the northern spotted owl, there was an effort to protect the few remnant old-growth forests in the animal's range from logging. Habitat protection is really key to species protection. Unfortunately it's also very controversial.

In the most dire situations, there are captive breeding programs to prevent a species from dying out. Examples include the California condor and the delta smelt.

The long-term consequences of extinction really vary among species. The loss of the gray wolf in Yellowstone caused a whole chain of impacts, in what's called a trophic cascade. With the large predator gone, the behavior and numbers of elk increased. The elk grazed streamside vegetation almost into oblivion. This caused a decrease in the abundance and diversity of frogs and songbirds among other things. Much of this has changed with the wolf's return.

In other cases, like the delta smelt's, the endangered species is barely hanging on in a completely altered ecosystem. The smelt's disappearance would not likely cause much in the way of noticeable impacts in the delta. On the other hand, protecting the smelt would also preserve some habitat critical to other struggling native fish in the region.

--Sharon


Hi, I'm just curious about efforts made towards the conservation of these endangered species. Is there any specific method used to preserve animals when they are labeled endangered (Ex. Help them proliferate in a controlled environment)? Or do scientists just keep a close eye on these species but leave them be in the wild? Also, what are some long term consequences of having animals go extinct? Thanks!

dc333827806

This is a huge question because the methods vary with the species. The best strategy is to protect large tracts of habitat containing multiple species, with careful management and monitoring, often called ecosystem-based management. When we get down to saving individual species through artificial propagation, we have pretty much lost the fight because only a very few species can be saved that way and because the species are put on an evolutionary pathway that diverges from the one they were on when living in a natural environment. Successful reintroductions of species from artificial environments have been made, especially with fish (e.g. cutthroat trout) but they are rare and costly. The best examples also require careful genetic management and manipulation.

The delta smelt is an example of a species where an artificial propagation program is well established partly as a back up in case the wild population is extirpated. But a significant problem is that there is very little suitable habitat for the smelt anymore and there will be even less with climate change. So, do we make a valiant effort at reintroduction? Do we keep the smelt going in captivity, recognizing it will soon be adapted to more to troughs than an estuary, as a curiosity to display in aquaria?

I hate to say this but many species can go extinct with no real long-term consequences except sadness that we have lost something irreplaceable and beautiful. Paul Ehrlich’s analogy of losing rivets on an airplane is apt to some extent (losing species from an ecosystem is like losing rivets from an airplane; the plane will still fly when the first rivets are lost but eventually crashes). As ecosystems become severely damaged they change in ways we don’t like (e.g. supporting noxious weeds) but they are still ecosystems.

Jason Baumsteiger and I have dealt with some of these issues in the following article:

Baumsteiger, J. and P.B. Moyle 2017. Assessing extinction. Bioscience 67: 357-366. doi:10.1093/biosci/bix001

Peter


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