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The species you save may be your own.

We humans are crowding other creatures off this planet at the rate of one a day--at inestimable risk to our own future.

For centuries the sharp bite of late autumn prodded grizzly bears of the Great Plains up the spires of the Rocky Mountain front. In the packed snow of wind-blasted slopes they clawed out dens and slept away the winter. Fat and sluggish from a diet of choke cherries, buffalo berries, and pine nuts when they entered, they were lean engines of fury, ignited by hunger, when they emerged in spring. Months of abstinence had gnawed to the edge of their flesh, and it was flesh they craved to make up the loss. Any living animal in their path, including their smaller kin the black bear, could be smacked down and devoured if caught.

Fortunately, during their time of carnivorous appetite in spring, sustenance often awaited them in cool storage. Emerging from the snow were carcasses of elk, deer, and bison that had failed to survive the long winter. Desperate hunger abated, the bears took up residence in the lowlands, munching on salads of cow parsnip and angelica, sometimes even grazing placidly on grass within sight of hoofed neighbors.

Eventually a new and very different neighbor stepped into the annual routine of the grizzly bear and changed life on the Great Plains forever. People came with ranches and towns and replaced the elk and buffalo with cattle. The griz, a voracious beast of uncertain temperament and awesome weaponry, found little place in the lives of the newcomers and was no match for repeating rifles, traps, and poison. The ambling monarch became the trespasser, feared and unwanted.

Although estimates of the bear's population in Alaska today range up to 42,000, by 1991 only 700-900 grizzlies survived in the lower states of Wyoming, Idaho, Washington, and Montana. Especially at the point where the western mountains meet the midcontinental prairie, the grizzly seemed destined for disappearance, until a domain was set aside where the great bear remains king. In 1978 The Nature Conservancy bought the first of 18,000 acres of prime grizzly habitat on the eastern front of the Rockies. The property now known as Pine Butte Preserve begins in meadows and willow thickets of the plains of western Montana, climbs rounded foothills covered with spruce and aspen, and leads to steep crags owned by the Bureau of Land Management. The Conservancy and BLM properties, plus land owned by the Montana Fish and Game Department, total some 40,000 acres of prime grizzly country.

The shrunken realm of the western grizzly is a dramatic and perhaps overstated example of what is happening to millions of species on this planet. In the environmental renaissance of the 1990s, millions of people fret over the possible disappearance of the grizzly bear. Most of them may not realize that setting aside a block of woods to save it does not fit the mountain-prairie routine of old silvertip, whose lowland haunts are now coveted by farmers and ranchers. Salvation for the largest carnivore in North America requires plucking out a sizable piece of the bear's original home and leaving it intact.

So it is with millions of species--most of them much less imposing than the grizzly--that are being crowded off this planet.

We of homo sapiens, now dominant on the earth after thousands of years as an intelligent but somewhat puny resident, have proven ourselves poor stewards. Squandering our inheritance before it has been fully appraised, we wipe out species at random without even knowing how many species exist. Estimates of the total plants and animals that share space with us range from five million to 30 million. At present rates of destruction, a quarter of them may be gone in the next 25 years.

As other species plummet, our own is in astronomical rise. It took homo sapiens thousands of years to reach a population at the birth of Christ that was less than that of the United States today. By 1800 we had reached our first billion--today's China--scattered over the globe. In the next 200 years, as sanitation improved and diseases were conquered, our numbers shot to five billion. In the explosive multiples of reproductivity, that number could double in the next 50 years, even if the entire world achieved zero population birth rates, unlikely soon.

In the previous century and early in this one, animals such as the grizzly, wolf, and cougar were called "varmints" and executed on sight. Smaller animals were assumed to be inexhaustible, and any plants beyond those of practical use were beyond consideration.

By the 20th century we had realized our capabilities for destruction. Passenger pigeons once flew over America in flocks so huge they blotted out the sun as they passed overhead and broke down trees when they came to roost. Hunting brought those hordes down to one bird, which died alone in a cage in 1914. The total weight of bison in this country--some 40 million--once far exceeded the weight of our current human population. By 1889 they numbered less than 600 animals. The oceans were not big enough to hide the right whale, which was so right for whalers that they harpooned it nearly to extinction.

Voices were raised in protest, and the environmental movement was born. The Audubon Society was founded in 1886, the first major environmental group. Chapters dedicated to preventing extinctions of birds by plume hunters spread nationwide and influenced passage of bird-protection laws in 32 states. Theodore Roosevelt observed of the bison reduction, "Never before...were so many large wild animals of one species slain in so short a space of time," and he called conservation "the most weighty question now before the people of the United States." The protection he fostered was much influenced by his friend John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club.

Today it is not hunting that threatens large numbers of species so much as our own proliferation. We crowd out species by changing their habitat to create croplands and grazing, cities and superhighways. In the process we pollute their homes, introduce new predators, and trap creatures in islands of vegetation from which they find no migratory escape.

At the start of this century the Ecological Society of America was formed, out of concern that virgin America was disappearing under the axe and the plow. By 1951 an impatient faction had evolved into a separate group called The Nature Conservancy, which set aside land to keep it unspoiled. In the early 1970s the mission was refined to saving land that contained species and biological communities in peril. It marked the first broad-scale attempt at saving biodiversity for practical as well as moral reasons. Such efforts have now spread worldwide, judging from the biodiversity treaty passed at the Rio de Janeiro environmental summit in June of 1992. The United States did not sign the treaty, because of a clause calling on rich nations to share biotechnology with the poor nations.

The "practical" arguments for saving species are hard to dispute. A quarter of all prescription drugs used in the United States contain plant extracts. Include across-the-counter pharmaceuticals, and our medical dependency on the ingredients of other species is startling. The foods that sustain us come from a pitifully few plants with many more awaiting discovery and use. What's on the menu when disease or climate change wipe out the 20 or so plant species that now feed most of the world? The wild cousins of these plants often have resistances that can be hybridized into domestic strains.

Twenty years ago blight wiped out a fifth of the U.S. corn crop. By crossing field corn with a wild cousin, scientists altered the genetic makeup to resist the disease. Even the desirable qualities of non-relatives--even non-plants--may be recruited. The insect-repelling odor in a millipede found in North American forests might be transferable to cereal crops through genetic engineering.

The complex molecules in hundreds of plants and animals are beneficial to our own in many ways, and cannot be created artificially. Aspirin, perhaps the most common medicine known to modern man, derives from a willow. American Indians combined extracts from two types of cone flowers, a type of cedar, and a plant called false wild indigo as a disease preventative. Although that concoction has since disappeared from American pharmacopoeia, tests conducted by a German firm among the elderly in a nursing home have indicated that it indeed boosts the immune system.

These ingredients are not only beneficial to human health but often strangely compatible with the human body. Oil from cashew nuts has been found to fight tooth decay and other bacterial infections. Cashew toothpaste? Bamboo extracts have shown the ability to inhibit bacterial growth. Might that give the food industry a natural preservative more acceptable to consumers than chemicals whose effects on our bodies are uncertain?

The search for the remaining keys to our survival and comfort has barely begun. Of all the plants and animals we know on this earth, only one in a hundred has been tested for possible benefit. And the species we have not yet identified far outnumber those that we have. We destroy them before we discover them and determine how they might be useful.

The web that holds all life together is still underappreciated and little understood. The now-extinct dodo bird once fed on the fruit of the tree Calvaria major. After the last dodo died in 1680, no new "dodo trees" sprouted. Nearly 300 years later, when all but 13 of the ancient trees had disappeared, a scientist discovered that the grinding process in the dodo's craw had caused the seeds to germinate. The trees are now being reproduced by artificially abrading the seeds, a close call for Calvaria.

What else depended on the dodo tree? What about the dodo itself? Did we lose a great source of food in those large, fruit-eating, slow-moving, flightless birds? What suffered or proliferated with the disappearance of the great auk, a large, diving sea bird once common on America's Atlantic coast?

Some species may have no monetary worth but are fascinating to behold. Does the cure for cancer lie in the grizzly bear? Probably not. But if a grizzly has no value, why do we thrill to the sight of it in the wild or stare at it in a zoo? Might its fearsome power remind us of our own limitations, our mortality? Children seem to need monsters. Perhaps adults need them as well, to excite their imaginations, to keep them humble.

Despite these hints at the importance of every living species, we are wiping them out at the rate of at least one a day. Our increasingly urban population falls more and more out of touch with the natural world beyond the pavement. It follows that urbanites see less and less importance to holding onto an insect or plant they have never heard of, let alone seen. "There might be some feeling for nice landscapes, but with little emotional involvement for the bugs and plants that make it work," said Bob Jenkins, science director at The Nature Conservancy's national headquarters in Rosslyn, Virginia.

Our sensitivities are improving but still have far to go. Surveys have shown that the American people, given a choice of damming a stream for recreation or preserving an endangered species that lives there, will oppose the dam. But if the dam is to provide hydroelectric energy, they overwhelmingly favor it over the species. We have so crowded this planet with our own kind that our comfort and survival have become paramount in importance.

That priority may be misdirected. As our activities continue to wipe out plants and animals, we may be unknowingly diminishing human chances of survival, through loss of critical medicines, food supplies, and the general balance of nature. For want of a dam, a ranch, a lumber supply, or yet another housing development, another species may eventually be lost. Our own.

Noel Grove is a senior writer for National Geographic. This article is an adaptation from the opening chapter of a new book, "Preserving Eden, The Nature Conservancy," by Noel Grove, photos by Stephen J. Krasemann, published this year by Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, NY.
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Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:impact of humans on natural habitats of other animal species
Author:Grove, Noel
Publication:American Forests
Date:Nov 1, 1992
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