If you have time, listen to this episode of Radiolab on NPR. If you don’t have time, I’ll summarize the story now. The Kirtland Warbler has been listed as an endangered species since 1973, and has faced extinction in the past decade. The bird was threatened for two reasons. First, an invasive species known as a cow-bird entered the region. Cowbirds sneak an egg into the nests of other birds when the mother is away. In order to hide the egg, the cowbirds kill one of the warbler eggs. The cowbird often watches the nest and if the cowbird egg is removed from the nest, the cowbird will seek revenge by killing all the other eggs in the nest. To add insult to injury, the cowbird will hatch a day before the other eggs, so it will be the loudest and strongest of the hatchlings, consuming a larger share of the food than the other baby birds. This often leads to the death of another warbler hatchling.
To combat this problem, the National Forest Service has killed and trapped thousands of cowbirds, but the warbler population did not rebound. This is how the second problem was discovered; the warbler needs young saplings in order to thrive. As a result of development, many regions lack saplings and wildlife habitat is comprised of older trees. The National Forest Service then began burning forests in order to create habitat for the birds.
Tragically, the National Forest Service lost control of one such fire on a windy day and a young firefighter was lost in the flames. This young firefighter and 'birder' had taken a paycut specifically to come work in the area to protect the Kirtland Warbler. As a result of this tragic fire, the warbler population has rebounded and continues to grow.
This story made me ponder whether I would sacrifice my own life to save a species. The question is easy when you think of animals that evoke nostalgic memories of zoo animals and polar bears on Coca-Cola commercials. So maybe you would be willing to sacrifice your own life to protect the lives of panda bears, but would you be willing to die to save a rare species of lizards? Or to take it one step further, to save a microorganism?
Despite your answer to the questions above, I’d like to put this argument into a more relevant context. If you hesitated for even a fraction of a second to ponder whether you would sacrifice your life to promote the balance of nature, then you probably recognize the importance of preserving the environment. The most poignant component of this argument is that if it were as simple as self-sacrifice, hundreds of thousands of individuals would be willing to give their life to preserve a species. Unfortunately, preserving the intricate balance of nature requires the hard work, sacrifice and determination of hundreds of millions of individuals accompanied by sweeping changes around the world.
Of course you can, and in fact you should, reduce, reuse and recycle. You can use energy efficient appliances and replace your lightbulbs with eco-friendly alternatives. You can buy locally grown, organic products and you can carpool or walk to reduce your carbon footprint. You can vote for local officials that support the preservation of the environment. You can encourage your friends and neighbors to adopt a more eco-friendly lifestyle. Again, I think that you can and you should do the things listed above, and much, much more.
However, the only way to achieve the necessary level of change required is through political will.
It is difficult to prioritize your vote in times of budget deficits and recessions, but if you truly value the environment you will promote your beliefs with your dollars, your actions, your voice and your vote. Voting for local, state, and federal officials that prioritize the environment above special interests is one important way we can affect change.
Forget New Year's Resolutions... what is your Earth Day Resolution?