By Chris Morrill, Executive Director
A recent study, released this month by NatureServe, outlined how imperiled plants and animal species are in the United States. The study brought together information from years of work and a variety of sources aggregating data to create a better overall picture of how many species are imperiled. The paper found that 34% of all plant species and 40% of all animal species are at risk of extinction in the United States. The study also looked at different ecosystem types to assess how much of those lands have been degraded or lost and concluded that 41% of these ecosystems are at risk of collapse.
While the study covers the entire United States, California stood out for a number of reasons. One reason is that California’s diversity of landscapes and ecosystems results in a truly extraordinary level of biodiversity. It stands out among other states because of its size, geographic features, and landscape diversity. Because of California’s extensive diversity, it makes it the state with the highest percentage of at-risk plants and animals.
The report includes ecosystem-specific maps of forests, deserts, wetlands, grasslands, and shrublands. The maps create a crude, but helpful understanding of where these ecosystem types exist now, and where they existed historically. These maps clearly identify the degree to which human development and alteration have fragmented and limited the size of these ecosystems. We know that habitat destruction, fragmentation, and the introduction of invasive species as well as resource extraction of these areas are at the heart of these individual plant and animal species’ peril.
Conservation and restoration’s role in reducing risk
The report also makes clear the opportunities that conservation and restoration can provide in reducing the risk posed to both individual species and ecosystems. They explicitly call out the effort to preserve 30% of California by 2030. Humans have an enormous impact on the land around us, particularly as we continue to change and alter landscapes for development and growth.
One recent and insightful illustration of how human beings can alter and precipitate ecosystem collapse is seen in our once prolific and fecund kelp forests along the Northern California coasts. Originally, the removal of sea otters from that ecosystem created a very vulnerable ecosystem. Although this wasn’t enough to precipitate the collapse of kelp forests, it created a less resilient system.
When the sea urchins’ other predator, the sea star, began to die in large numbers as a result of a wasting disease, the ecosystem no longer had the predators it needed to keep the sea urchin population in control. With that, the urchins began to eat all the kelp and eliminated the forest entirely in some places. One animal species rarely precipitates an ecosystem collapse, which may give us a false sense of resilience. However, compounding pressures, like habitat loss and climate change, create an atmosphere in which these now fragile systems are much more likely to collapse entirely.
Taking a larger ecosystem approach helps interpret the need for landscape-scale and connected conservation projects. Examples like our kelp forest can hopefully illustrate the risk to these places but also the important role they play in our lives. This report adds to the overwhelming evidence of the need to increase our restoration of lands that have been degraded by human activity and the creation of much larger and more robust protections for areas facing compounding challenges.
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