If the biblical Noah had slapped a bumper sticker on his ark, I bet he would have chosen "Extinction is Forever."- Noah knew this, it was implicit in the instructions God gave him, but as he struggled to save all creation he may have occasionally needed the reminder. Don't you suspect he was tempted to cheat? To save only the creatures he thought useful and let the inconvenient ones drown? Or perhaps to figure that if he missed a few it wouldn't matter, his God could create some new species when the flood subsided. But Noah didn't cut corners. He recognized he wasn't wise enough to pick which creatures to save and that creation probably wasn't all that easy to re-create.
Modern science tells us Noah was right to fear extinction. It is forever, and nature has a hard time coming up with replacements. New species evolve at speeds that make continental drift seem rapid. Modern scientists also tell us something scarier. Humanity is now the anti-Noah, driving other species extinct at alarming rates. The godfather of biodiversity science, Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson, predicts that by 2100 we will have condemned half the species on earth to extinction. Wilson estimates the rate of human caused extinction is 1,000 to 10,000 times the normal evolutionary extinction rate. Scientists say we are in the midst of a sixth great extinction. The previous five are marked by fossils, or their absence, in the rock layers distinguishing geological epochs. The most recent, the Cretaceous, occurred 65 million years ago when an asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs. What is different now is that humanity is the asteroid, one species destroying the rest. Mass extinction is a dangerous game, a problem which scientists find even more alarming, and less repairable, than global warming, itself yet another cause of extinction. Do we know which parts of creation we can live without? The parable of Noah counsels otherwise.
Our modern analog to Noah is the Endangered Species Act (ESA), passed by Congress in 1973 to "halt and reverse the trend towards species extinction, whatever the cost."- Congress found the diversity of life on earth to be of incalculable value recognizing, as did conservationist Aldo Leopold: "The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, "-What good is it? "- Who, but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering."-
Today's extinction crisis is not a remote concern about burning rainforests and the melting artic. It is also local. The ESA protects approximately 1,300 species in the U.S. Some are familiar, charismatic superstars, like wolves, grizzly bears and lynx, but most of the species on the ESA list are the little things that make the world go round, the building blocks of the ecosystems upon which we depend. As troubling as it is to think that 1,300, largely unknown, domestic species are currently threatened with extinction, this is the tip of the iceberg. The real number of species threatened with extinction in the U.S. is between 6,000 and 9,000. The ESA is a poor imitation of Noah. Our legal safety net, designed to save all species, is leaving thousands of imperiled ones completely unprotected. Even worse, despite the abundance of species in need, for over two years the Bush Administration has not added a single species found in the U.S. to list.
What's wrong? Blame a lack of will and a lack of funding. Lack of will is the more important factor. The Secretary of the Interior, charged with implementing the ESA, requests only about $15 million a year, or 10% of the funding necessary to fully fund the ESA's listing program. $15 million or even $150 million is peanuts in the federal budget, less than the average cost of the annual "bridge to nowhere"- project. Federal agencies normally do not request that their programs be chronically under-funded. Money is not the real issue. The problem is why Interior doesn't want it. The answer to that quandary is simple. Adding species to the ESA list forces legal protection, and legal protection often angers politically powerful interests.
As Noah realized saving creation is hard work. We need to stop denying the extent of the extinction crisis, and protect all vanishing species, great and small. Better funding the ESA listing program would be a step in the right direction. Let's hope it is one the next Administration and Congress take seriously, before we lose something, or more likely, many, many small irreplaceable somethings, that are that are right in our own backyards.