The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently proposed threatened and endangered species status for two species of butterflies found in Minnesota. The Dakota skipper and Poweshiek skipperling are in trouble because of dwindling habitat. But would their loss mean anything to us?
Conservation giant Aldo Leopold certainly thought so. He famously said, “The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, ‘What good is it?’… To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”
Today conservationists attempt to justify the protection of rare and endangered species for their human benefits. By one estimate, more than a quarter of the prescriptions U.S. doctors write each year are for medicines derived from chemicals that came from plants and animals. There is simply no way of knowing what niche an obscure, threatened species fills in an ecosystem. It’s there for a reason, even if we don’t know it yet.
Minnesotans have our work cut out for us. The Department of Natural Resources added 180 species to the state’s threatened and endangered species list this summer, bringing the total to 590. At the same time, DNR pulled 29 recovered species off the list.
Success stories like the removal of the peregrine falcon and bald eagle from the endangered species list should give us heart. The sheer number of troubled species may seem daunting, but by thinking big – looking at protection of large swaths of habitat that nurture multiple species – we can make a big impact. We’ll have to support funding and legislation to make such large-scale conservation possible.
More than humanity’s welfare is at stake. The late arch-conservative pundit James J. Kilpatrick rose to the defense of the Endangered Species Act, calling it a cause around which true conservatives should rally. “Why protect the Indiana bat, the willow warbler, the mission blue butterfly and the dwarf bear-poppy? The answer is, we do not know. We may never know. But we must not be prevented from ever finding out. We protect them because they are there.”