Levin: Protecting Biodiversity

Dec 8, 2017

Recently, The Washington Post published an Op Ed piece by Alexander Pyron, an evolutionary biologist at George Washington University, titled “We Don’t Need To Save Endangered Species.” The author argued that extinction is both natural and unimportant and that humans should take care of themselves, trusting Earth to correct any arrogant mistakes over deep time.

Pyron has since walked back his assertions to some extent, but his essay may already have damaged our commitment to protect endangered species, especially at the Federal level. And while it’s true that extinction is natural, species often diversify into other species before fading. When the rate of extinction is accelerated, elimination occurs without replacement, diminishing creation. Think Carolina parakeet - or Vermont bald eagles.

When I moved here in 1977, bald eagles hadn’t nested in the state since the FDR administration and any sighting along the Connecticut River was broadcast on the VINS Rare-Bird Alert. The nearest place to watch eagles was in lower New York State, where a hydroelectric plant within the Delaware River watershed attracted a food chain of aquatic animals.

Then, in 2002, a pair of eagles nested in Vermont for the first time in sixty years. Today, they’re here year-round – and this past summer, twenty-one pairs of Vermont bald eagles fledged thirty-five young, mostly in the Champlain Valley and along the Connecticut River.

Their success is due to several factors, including improved water quality and riparian habitat, public education, and the diligence of Vermont Fish and Wildlife. But without two pieces of landmark legislation it’s likely there would be no nesting eagles here - or anywhere else in New England outside of Maine. They are The Clean Water Act, ratified by Richard Nixon in 1972, and The Endangered Species Act, ratified the following year.

Late last winter, as I drove east from the Crown Point Bridge, I happened to notice a pair of bald eagles mating in a white oak, burnished by a veneer of sunlight like butterscotch. Their union lasted only seconds but to me, its significance was infinite.

A century ago, American naturalist William Beebe wrote that “… a vanished harmony may yet again inspire the composer, but when the last individual of a race of living things breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again.”

He might have been speaking for Vermont bald eagles.