Climate Corner: America’s vanishing treasures
Jan 13, 2024
“Nothing is more priceless and more worthy of preservation than the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed. It is a many faceted treasure, of value to scholars, scientists and nature lovers alike, and it forms a vital part of the heritage we all share as Americans.” This is a quote from a statement made by President Nixon as he signed the Endangered Species Act in 1973. President Theodore Roosevelt, after seeing the demise of the passenger pigeon which once numbered in the billions and a near miss for the American bison, hoped to protect species from extinction with the establishment of the precursor to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and this call to action has been echoed by countless others. Seventy years later the Endangered Species Act was realized, and we recently celebrated the 50th year of that Act.
The threats to our nation’s natural treasures are different today than they were in T. Roosevelt’s era although habitat destruction that was a critical factor for the passenger pigeon is still a major factor for many species today. The myriad of impacts that we all have on the environment continues to take its toll. Climate change is a major stressor for many species that are struggling to hang on. One example: spring warm up is causing many insects to emerge earlier than usual where other reliant species have life cycles timed to this event and they rely on photoperiod, that is the lengthening of the day. The relationship between warming and the photoperiod are changing but some species aren’t getting the memo, jeopardizing their food supply and/or reproductive success.
Even though the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, enabled with the provisions of the Endangered Species Act, has been able to protect 99% of the species that have been listed as endangered from extinction, 2023 saw 21 species added to the lengthening list of those that are designated as officially extinct. Eight of the species designated as extinct are fresh-water mussels, and one of those were once found in W. Virginia and Ohio. Freshwater mussels have experienced serious declines for many years and many species are now listed. The nearby Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge was established in part to protect the mussel populations in the Ohio River. According to their website, fws.gov/refuge/ohio-river-islands, the refuge harbors 47 species of mussels of which 8 are listed as endangered.
Mussels are considered bio-indicator species like the proverbial canary in the coal mine, a good indicator of the quality of their environment. Mussels provide ecosystem services that benefit people; they are filter feeders that remove contaminants or excessive nutrients from the water, a single mussel can filter as much as 15 gallons of water a day. Mussels are especially susceptible to the effects of climate change for a number of reasons but especially because they rely on fish to complete their life cycle and many mussel species rely on a particular species of fish. A decline in fish populations tends to exacerbate a corresponding decline in mussel population.
Climate change impacts us all in so many ways that we are not aware and delayed effects will impact generations that follow. It took several decades for things to get bad enough for us to establish the Endangered Species Act — it was too late for many species and was too late to make the needed change to prevent many more extinctions then. Scientists have been warning us about the dangers of climate change for decades, why wait until this crisis gets to or past critical before we get serious. We know that failure to act will lead to serious consequences, so if for no other reason, for the sake of the mussels let’s act now.
Vic Elam is an avid outdoorsman and contributor to organizations that share his concern for our environment, including Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Action.