BOISE – The Defenders of Wildlife, like many environmental groups, is dedicated to the philosophy of biologist Aldo Leopold – that “saving all the parts” of the world’s ecosystems is the foundation of conservation.
“To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering,” Leopold wrote in his classic 1940s essay “Round River.” Those words became part of the foundation of the modern environmental movement.
So when Defenders climate scientist Jean Brennan and others suggest that it may be time to change the Endangered Species Act to allow some species to go extinct, it underscores the crisis they say the West and the world face from climate change.
The nation’s top scientists say climate warming is “unequivocal,” and much of it is “very likely due” to human causes – and that has forced corporations, investors and government officials to reconsider long-held views.
Now the emerging and fast-moving realities of climate change are forcing wildlife advocates and environmentalist to rethink their philosophies as well.
Do the benefits of nuclear energy outweigh the risks? Will drawn-out court battles on governmental decisions cause more environmental harm than they do good? And the question that tears at the center of Leopold’s doctrine: Can all species be saved? “If you think too much about it, it sends you into despair,” said Pat Parenteau, an environmental law professor at the University of Vermont.
But federal and state scientists and managers say they have no choice but to start, and they gathered in Boise recently at the first meeting of federal officials to look ahead to what policies and strategies need to be changed.
Twenty to 40 percent of all known species could go extinct, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist and endangered species recovery expert Jeff Burgett said. And scientists say that even if greenhouse gases are dramatically reduced, it will take more than 100 years to dissipate the high levels of carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere.
The dire news was a wake-up call for agency biologists, regional managers and others who hardly were allowed even to discuss climate change over the last eight years of the Bush administration.
Brennan, Parenteau and most wildlife advocates aren’t ready to give up on most species. But they no longer are looking to return ecosystems to a former pristine state. Climate change will eliminate many ecosystems around the world and create new ones that no longer can sustain the creatures and plants there now, Brennan said.
Many ecosystems that will exist in 2100 exist nowhere on Earth today, she said.
“Our grandchildren are going to grow up in a world that’s unrecognizable today,” said Dale Goble, a University of Idaho law professor and co-author of the book “The Endangered Species Act at Thirty.” The idea that we can address the threats that species face and bring them back to recovery is the core concept that underlies the Endangered Species Act, Goble said. But “recovery” – as the law requires – is not likely to be an option.
At least 80 percent of endangered species and even many game species that survive will need special, individual management into perpetuity, Goble said.
Species like pikas, a small mammal, and even mountain goats that live in high mountains will lose their habitat and are likely to go extinct.
The warmer weather already may be affecting diseases, which could be moving north into new habitat now warm enough for them to thrive in. A parasitic brain worm is killing moose in Minnesota. West Nile virus, carried by mosquitoes, has moved west and north to threaten sage grouse and even kill people.
“We have to get a whole lot lighter on our feet,” Goble said. “We have to be able to act more quickly. Taking risks means you have to try something, and if it doesn’t work, you have to try something else.” Parenteau has been training environmental lawyers for years to slow things down so more deliberative decisions are made about development. But now he advocates changes in the National Environmental Policy Act that would allow the nation to move faster on alternative energy development like wind plants, solar and other noncarbon sources.
He points to held-up wind projects and a recent moratorium on solar development in western desert areas.
“I am an environmentalist who has used NEPA to slow things down,” Parenteau said. “I’m now saying NEPA should be used to speed things up.”
In the latest lawsuit against the dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers, salmon advocates pointed out the lack of a definitive discussion on the effects of climate change on salmon.
Tim Personius, deputy regional director of the Bureau of Reclamation, which manages some of those dams, wonders whether the salmon advocates are looking at the big picture.
The salmon groups say the only way to recover Snake River salmon is to breach four dams on the river in Washington – but the electrical generation lost would have to be replaced with sources more damaging to the climate.
“That effectively would increase carbon emissions an average of 4 million tons per year,” Personius said.
Parenteau believes the trade-off of removing the relatively low-power dams to restore salmon is worth the carbon impacts. But he acknowledged that considerations like the larger impacts on thousands of species – including the salmon – from climate change should be taken in to account in Endangered Species Act decisions.
Salmon advocates may have to consider replacing the power from the dams with nuclear power, said Virgil Moore, Idaho Department of Fish and Game deputy director.
“I suspect many of us aren’t putting that on the table,” Moore said. “We know the risk, and it’s scary, but the risks of climate change are really scary.”
Parenteau has opposed nuclear power in the past, and he’s still not ready to support it as part of the solution for climate change.
“But for people like me, nuclear power is on the table,” he said.
That may seem like a major shift, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Burgett said people will have to change their perceptions about many things – even the concept of sustainability.
“If you are talking about sustaining the world we have now, it’s too late,” he said.