Mankind given a second chance
Published 10:18 am Wednesday, March 5, 2008
To the casual observer, they were just big birds.
To biologists, they were a small miracle.
The congregation of brown pelicans in Washington last week wasn’t simply a rare treat. It was a sign that mankind can undo some of the damage it caused and bring a species back from the brink of extinction. We can’t create life, only God can do that, but we’ve seen where we can fix some of the damage we’ve caused if we work hard enough and long enough.
Pelican populations saw a steep decline until the United States banned the use of the pesticide DDT in the early 1970s. Pelicans weren’t alone when it came to declining populations. DDT was blamed in part for a sharp drop in the number of bald eagles. DDT, a toxic chemical, caused the egg shells of birds to be brittle, and the unhatched died as a result.
DDT wasn’t the only culprit. Habitat loss was another cause. The combination of the ban on the pesticide, aggressive captive breeding and a translocation program helped eagle populations soar from 416 eagle pairs in the lower 48 states in 1963 to 9,789 as of a few years ago. Eagles, once a rare sight in eastern North Carolina, are now not so rare. Think about that the next time you see one.
Pelicans were in the same boat. In 1970, there were an estimated 2,800 on the East Coast. By 1985, the number was up to 10,300, and by 1999 there were 15,600.
The mid-Atlantic revival was so rapid that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service dropped its endangered status for Virginia and North Carolina’s pelican populations in 1985. Last month, the agency proposed a similar end for the remaining coastal states where pelicans congregate — Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, California, Washington and Oregon — as well as Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said the pelicans were in good shape.
There are a number of other animals that have seen their numbers rebound. There were just 54 whooping cranes in 1967. By 2006, the number was 513, but some were in captivity. That’s nearly a 10-fold improvement, but clearly nothing compared to the growth of pelican populations. The world’s humpback whale population was down to 1,200 in the 1960s. By some estimates, they increased to 8,000 by 1992 in part because of a ban on hunting.
The cost of bringing a species back from the brink of extinction isn’t cheap, and it isn’t guaranteed, but it’s proven to be worth it. Man simply can’t ignore nature without risking the loss of nature. That means bats, beetles, sea grass and worms. Do you want to be the one to tell your grandchild that he or she can no longer see an Atlantic green sea turtle because your generation simply didn’t think it was worth saving?
The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries classifies the brown pelican as “a state species of concern.” This status provides no legal protection, but it “basically means we need to keep monitoring them, surveying their trends,” said Ruth Boettcher, a department biologist on the Eastern Shore.
Man has shown he has the ability to destroy the environment. In the last few decades man has also shown he can make amends. Let’s not play a game of seeing how close we can bring a species to extinction before we make last-ditch efforts to try and save it. God is giving us a second chance, and we need to take it.