The CBS program “60 Minutes” recently aired a report entitled “The Vanishing Wild”. Host Scott Pelley introduced this by asking the question, “In which year will the human population grow too large for the Earth to support?”
Without pausing for viewers to think, he continued, “The answer is circa 1970.”
“In 1970, the planet’s three and a half billion people were sustainable. But on this New Year’s Eve the population is eight billion. Today, wild plants and animals are running out of places to live.”
Ending his introduction with reference to “a mass extinction crisis on a scale not seen since the days of the dinosaurs,” the story he continues to tell begins in the Pacific Northwest with the precipitous decline of salmon populations and the disappearance of fishing traditions dependent on them.
It’s not just salmon that are disappearing. Pelley notes that “over the past 50 years, global wildlife abundance has plummeted by 69 percent.” And why could it be?
“Too many people; too much consumption; and growth craze,” says a well-groomed elderly gentleman who appears on the screen.
I recognized this man before he was introduced: Paul Ehrlich, who has completed his PhD. in biology from the University of Kansas in 1957 before moving on to the faculty at Stanford. He subsequently wrote a book entitled “The Population Bomb”, which generated much discussion and debate after its publication in 1968, warning of the global consequences of overpopulation.
Pelley noted that the views expressed in the book have led many to consider Ehrlich an alarmist.
“I was alarmed,” he replied. “I am still alarmed. All my colleagues are alarmed.”
He went on to say that humanity itself is not sustainable at current levels – that to support our way of life for everyone on the planet it would take the equivalent of five other Earths to supply the resources. Those resources, she noted, include “the biodiversity we’re wiping out.”
“The extinction rate is extraordinarily high now and getting higher and higher,” he warned.
In the spring of 2001, the Kansas Academy of Science invited Ehrlich to KU to speak at its annual meeting. While he was here, I recorded an interview with him for a documentary about the controversy over how evolution was taught in public schools.
As a professor of population studies, Ehrlich has focused on the evolving interactions of plants and animals, as well as issues related to cultural evolution. His warnings about the dangers of overpopulation have proven true, particularly when it comes to the impact we’re having on other species.
He spoke to me about the “human plight” of how we deal with the consequences of accelerating population growth, pollution, and global warming.
‘What interests us all,’ he said, as if speaking for all his fellow scientists, ‘is to change our cultural attitude towards the environment – to make everyone understand that our lives depend on a healthy environment. , from the services that natural ecosystems provide us”.
He went on to say that the scientists “have pretty much figured out what’s going on. And the problem we have now is translating what scientists know into public knowledge so we can get the appropriate policy answers.”
When it comes to environmental issues, however, it’s often not that simple. Consider, for example, what’s going on with the lesser prairie chicken.
In accordance with the Endangered Species Act, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has listed it as “threatened” in areas it inhabits in western Kansas and “endangered” in areas southwestern Texas and New Mexico.
This list is based on extensive studies documenting declining numbers and habitat loss. Looking ahead, it takes into consideration climate change with rising temperatures and decreasing rainfall continuing to add stress to the remaining bird population.
Organizations such as Audubon of Kansas (AOK) have filed testimony in favor of the listing, while all Republicans representing Kansas in Congress have opposed it. (My brother-in-law is chairman of the board of AOK, and I have also produced videos for them in the past.) Our new attorney general has indicated that he will challenge this in some capacity.
Shortly after the listing announcement, the Republican delegation initiated a legislative challenge seeking to overturn the decision through the Congressional Review Act, and U.S. Representative Ron Estes, representing the 4th district in Kansas, introduced a bill law promoting voluntary local management as a better solution. The Kansas Senate just passed a resolution calling for the list to be rescinded.
The controversy surrounding this has been simmering for the better part of three decades. Not likely to be fixed any time soon. The lesser prairie chicken could be “wiped out” as it has in the past, removing federal protections that apply to threatened or endangered species.
Does it make a difference to you? Why should you care? What do you know about this bird?
I have to admit, until I started looking into the subject, I didn’t know the difference between lesser and greater prairie chickens. I learned that the largest prairie chicken is the one I observed in the Flint Hills, where the tall grass prairie supports birds that are quite a bit larger than those that live on the shorter, drier prairies further west.
On the farm where I grew up, I remember seeing prairie chickens take off and fly low above the ground, their characteristic bursts of rapid flapping interspersed with curved-wing glides as they sailed by, usually coming back down after a quick, short flight. They seemed less comfortable in the air than most birds.
In recent years, I’ve observed them more closely when I’ve gone out in the spring on guided tours of prairie chicken “leks,” remote sites where they congregate as males attempt to gain the attention of females to gain their favor in the coupling.
I crossed pastures in pre-dawn darkness to get to a lek and sit patiently waiting for the birds to arrive. The stillness of the night eventually gives way to the sound of low cooing, which increases in intensity as more birds land nearby. You will soon find out why these leks are also called “booming grounds”.
When the light of dawn arrives, you can watch the males begin their dances. They inflate colorful air sacs at the sides of their necks and tap the ground rapidly with their feet, dancing or “dumping” in place and bouncing back and forth across their patch of grassland, strutting around the females circling among them, thundering in a cacophony that rises and falls, ebbs and flows.
Rival males attack each other aggressively, sometimes knocking feathers off an opponent as they leap into the air, flap their wings, and come down beak first.
When the sun climbs a little higher in the sky, the action wears off and they fly off. The show is over. But if you come back again the next morning, they’ll probably be there too.
It’s unfortunate, to say the least, that birds like these and many other wildlife species around the world are disappearing due to the ongoing mass extinction as the number of humans on the planet increases.
While the greater prairie chicken population in the Flint Hills isn’t currently facing as dire a situation as the lesser prairie chicken out west, it may only be a matter of time before it too is in danger.
Like the bison that once roamed freely across the Great Plains, the prairie chicken is considered a keystone species, the presence of which in a habitat indicates that it is healthy enough to support many other animals as well.
We nearly wiped out the bison before we recognized the valuable role they play in a grassland ecosystem. If we don’t make the effort to protect the habitats necessary for the survival of the prairie chicken, will we see a cascading effect where the biodiversity therein unravels?
These birds need large tracts of untouched grassland to meet their needs and maintain their routine. They shy away from developments encroaching on their territory, whether it be oil and gas production, wind farms or ranching operations.
It’s easy to see why landowners don’t want to deal with more regulations as they struggle to cope with already difficult circumstances.
That’s why voluntary conservation programs like the Lesser Prairie Chicken Initiative, administered by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, have been providing assistance and encouragement to farmers and ranchers for years.
But voluntary programs don’t appear to be reversing the tide, which is why it was deemed necessary by federal wildlife officials to make the statement that opponents called “bureaucratic overstatement.”
Time will tell whether the lesser prairie chicken’s “threatened” listing will survive the legal challenges or if the bird itself will survive altogether.
But it’s much more than just the bird populations we’re talking about. What is really at stake is maintaining our natural environments in ways that preserve healthy, functional ecosystems. This often requires imposed constraints on development, which some denounce as harmful to our economy and antithetical to capitalism and free enterprise.
You might keep in mind something Ehrlich shared with me when he broached the topic years ago: “When you hear someone say, ‘What we need to focus on now is the economy, not the environment,’ that tells you that the person saying he doesn’t understand anything because you can’t have an economy without a solid environment behind it.
Such a crazy idea, right?
Dave Kendall served as producer and host of the series “Sunflower Journeys” on public television for its first 27 seasons and continues to produce video documentaries through his company, Prairie Hollow Productions. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are influenced by public policy or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your comment, here.