Approximately 59 percent of the world’s biggest mammalian carnivore species—from wolves to tigers to lions— and 60 percent of the largest herbivores, are now listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species as threatened with extinction, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society. That information is at the core of a new report from dozens of scientists from six continents, published in the journal Bioscience, that details how large mammals throughout the world are facing an existential crisis. The report warns that “business as usual” will allow the declines to continue and eventually lead to the extinction of some of the world’s most iconic species.
As I’ve written in The Humane Economy, by liquidating these species for short-term gains – whether trophy hunting, bush meat, the pet trade, or animal parts for medicinal or commercial uses, along with habitat destructions and fragmentation – we are robbing present and future generations of aesthetic, emotional, and economic opportunities. The animals should be protected for their own sake, but we’d be foolish not to recognize the benefits they bring to people throughout the world, especially to communities that live among or are adjacent to these species. These animals, who often have made a last stand in national parks and other protected areas, are the draw that bring millions of people to these public lands, and jobs and revenue to rural and gateway communities.
We see that circumstance in the United States. When state officials in Alaska relentlessly kill off wolves and grizzlies, by aerial-hunting the species, they are diminishing the economic potential of their national preserves and national wildlife refuges, which can draw immense numbers of visitors who want to see the animals in the wild. The same is true when Montana and Wyoming kill wolves around Yellowstone and threaten the viability of packs. We’ve engaged in litigation for years to protect wolves in this ecosystem. When a trophy hunter or rancher kills a wolf, it can have a cascading, splintering effect, leading to the deaths of other members, particularly yearling wolves and pups.
It’s ironic that there are more than 300 million Americans and only 5,000 wolves in America, and some people say that’s too many wolves. If a single town had 5,000 people, settled within a few square miles, we’d call it a small town. But if it has 5,000 wolves scattered around tens of millions of acres of federal and state lands, some people say it’s too many. We’ve gone dangerously astray and lost perspective on the issue.
We need more predators, not fewer. When they thrive, there is more tourism, more human happiness, and more ecological integrity. The New York Times reported last week that if cougars made a comeback in the east, once part of their range, we’d see fewer human casualties, not more, since the cougars would exert an impact on deer, diminish deer densities, and reduce the frequency of deer-auto collisions. The same is true for wolves, perhaps even more so.
Yet in Congress, there are riders attached to a number of bills to remove federal protections for wolves in the Great Lakes and Wyoming, and one rider to end all protections for wolves in the lower 48 states. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is seeking to delist grizzly bears, even though the animals are an economic engine in the Northern Rockies. We’ve filed a lawsuit against the state of Wyoming for rushing to open up a grizzly trophy hunting season. The government should be an agent of the humane economy, rather than an executor of archaic policies and practices past that got the animals into these dire circumstances to begin with. When the people of Michigan had the wolf hunting and trapping issue on their ballot, they resoundingly rejected wolf killing, with citizens rejecting one of the measures with an emphatic 64 percent of the vote.
The HSUS and Humane Society International are fighting for large carnivores and other megafauna in other parts of the world. We led the fight to upgrade U.S. protections for African lions, restricting trade in lion trophies and other parts. We’ve just petitioned to upgrade protections for African elephants and leopards. Also here at home, we’ve qualified an initiative in Oregon for the November ballot to stop the trafficking of the parts of 12 species and taxa of imperiled animals, including elephants, rhinos, lions, and tigers, and also sharks and rays. That measure closely tracks the provisions of a Washington state measure we backed last November, which won 70 percent of the vote. Of course, we’ve actively lobbied for, and then celebrated, the adoption of federal rulemaking to almost entirely end the trade in ivory in the United States.
The Bioscience report doesn’t consider marine species, but it’s evident that the same trends are at work in those environments, with only fewer than 100 vaquita in Mexico surviving and declining populations of Atlantic right whales (animals we’ve won protections for by slowing down ship speeds in the Atlantic) and sea turtles, among others.
Elizabeth Kolbert has written that we are now in the midst of the sixth great extinction in the history of the planet, and this is the one that humans created. If we produced the crisis, we can turn it around. But that can only happen with intentional, decisive, bold action. We must sweep away the trophy hunting, the trading in parts, and all of the other activities driving these losses, and figure out a way to share space with the other large mammals on the planet. That won’t come without its challenges, but it’s within our capacity, as the creature of conscience and creativity, to figure out a way forward, so that we aren’t the loneliest species when these other animals are gone.