A Sobering Global Diversity Assessment

Wed, 05/15/2019 - 9:15am

A sobering report released last week made its way into media stories — perhaps you heard the news. A United Nations body called the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) announced its release at the end of its seventh meeting in Paris. The report was compiled over three years by 145 expert lead authors with contributions from 310 additional scientists. The full report is more than a thousand pages and references more than 15,000 scientific papers and reports.

It is easily the most comprehensive assessment of the state of global biodiversity ever completed.

And the news was not good.

The headline that most media outlets carried from the report is that as many as a million of the eight million species estimated on Earth are considered at risk of extinction.

That’s harshly alarming for those of us who love the natural world and understand its importance. Given the number of media stories about the report that flashed around the world last week, even many people with minimal engagement in nature also took notice.

That giant extinction number aside, there were many other troubling findings from the report as well: 500,000 species don’t have enough habitat left on land for their long-term survival; more than 40% of amphibian species and 33% of marine mammals are threatened with extinction worldwide; at least 680 vertebrate species have become extinct since the 1500s as a result of human activity; there has been a decline in abundance of at least 20% in native species of most ecosystems around the globe.

It’s easy for us here in Maine to imagine that most of these biodiversity problems occur somewhere else — Third World tropical countries, perhaps.

But Maine, too, has had its share of losses: passenger pigeons, Eskimo curlews, Labrador ducks, great auks, and heath hens among them. And we have lost the sea mink and the woodland caribou. Even today, about 40% of regularly occurring Maine bird species are considered to be in some category of conservation concern.

Fortunately, not all is doom and gloom. We here in Maine have many stories of success in bringing species and populations back to health. Wild turkeys were gone from Maine by 1840, but through restoration efforts, they now number more than 50,000. Nesting bald eagles were down to a few dozen and now are in the hundreds. Puffins, eiders, terns, gulls — all were almost gone from our coast at the turn of the century and are now nesting successfully, some in the thousands.

We are fortunate to have state and federal agencies as well as non-governmental organizations filled with dedicated staff working to protect and maintain species and ecosystems. On the front lines of land conservation across much of coastal Maine, an area that is projected to lose more wildlife habitat in coming decades than almost anywhere in the state, land trusts are diligently working in communities to ensure that there are natural places left to sustain us. The Boothbay Region Land Trust is actively doing its part right here in our area with many preserves ensuring that healthy forests, wetlands, and marine shorelines are here in the future for plants, birds, and other creatures, and for our children and their children and generations of children to come.

Don’t become discouraged by the difficult news of biodiversity losses. Rather, become more resolved than ever to do your part to make things better. 

Here is a link to the UN report: https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/blog/2019/05/nature-decline-unprecedented-report/

Jeffrey V. Wells, Ph.D., is a Fellow of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Dr. Wells is one of the nation's leading bird experts and conservation biologists and author of “Birder’s Conservation Handbook. His grandfather, the late John Chase, was a columnist for the Boothbay Register for many years. Allison Childs Wells, formerly of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is a senior director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, a nonprofit membership organization working statewide to protect the nature of Maine. Both are widely published natural history writers and are the authors of the book, “Maine’s Favorite Birds” and “Birds of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao: A Site and Field Guide” from Cornell Press.