Bruce Beehler is a local naturalist and author of 12 books, including “Natural Encounters” and “Birds of Maryland, Delaware, and the District of Columbia.” David Wilcove is a professor of ecology, evolutionary biology and public affairs at Princeton University.
The Florida grasshopper sparrow might be the most endangered bird in the continental United States. Biologists are working hard to save it — and they think they’re making progress.
But their efforts raise a persistent question: Why go to the trouble? It’s just a sparrow, after all. Sparrows are everywhere. Don’t we have enough of them as it is? And why should we care if a nondescript little bird — one that most of us will never see — slips out of existence?
As we emerge from four years of the Trump administration, which staged an extraordinary assault on a wide array of environmental protections, it’s worth addressing such issues once again.
Over the past few decades, the population of the Florida grasshopper sparrow plummeted to some 30 wild-bred pairs of birds. Lately a consortium of conservation organizations has put more than $1 million into developing a captive breeding program that is working to bring the sparrow back from the brink.
At its most basic level, of course, saving this bird is about holding onto something irreplaceable, a product of eons of evolution. Once a particular species — or subspecies, in this particular case — is gone, there’s no getting it back, tearing one more hole in the weakening fabric of global biodiversity.
Yet this is not just about the bird itself. By working to preserve the Florida grasshopper sparrow, we’re also protecting the remaining bits and pieces of a unique natural ecosystem unlike any place else on Earth: the Kissimmee prairie, a natural subtropical savanna unique in the Eastern United States. Across the nation, all sorts of natural ecosystems — places unconverted to tract housing, agriculture and other human uses — are becoming scarcer and more precious as our landscape becomes more and more human-dominated. These ecosystems are Earth’s prototypes — communities of plants and animals that have evolved over vast stretches of time in ways we are still trying to understand — and they can never be fully re-created once lost.
Moreover, the habitat we protect for the sparrow is home to thousandsof other native species, some relatively well-known (such as the Northern bobwhite), some imperiled (a butterfly called the Berry’s skipper) and others that have yet to be discovered by science. By working to conserve the Florida grasshopper sparrow’s habitat, we help to conserve these other species, large and small, common or rare. Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich famously called species the “rivets” that hold together spaceship Earth.
In addition, by protecting natural ecosystems we’re also protecting the important services these places provide, such as the production of clean air, pure and fresh water, or the sequestration of carbon. There might also be benefits we’re not yet in a position to judge, such as the possibility that some little creature in that ecosystem will provide the next great breakthrough in medicine or technology.
Species conservation gives us the chance to learn new things about our world, as we work out new and useful technologies for future use. And we also train a cadre of field biologists who can go on to benefit the world through their future activities. Practice makes perfect (or, at any rate, better). Each conservation effort helps us to sharpen tools for future battles on behalf of other endangered species. Our past efforts with the whooping crane and California condor were anything but assured when the efforts to save these magnificent birds began. But scientists learned as they went along and ultimately succeeded.
The most important benefits might be the hardest ones to measure — the cultural and spiritual impacts from unique places that we can wander through and appreciate, gaining a sense of peace and pleasure along the way. In months to come, some who have been cooped up at home in fear of covid-19 will no doubt treasure the opportunity to revel in the sublime beauty of the Kissimmee prairie or other natural ecosystems.
Yes, saving endangered plants and animals can be expensive. But does anyone begrudge our federal government spending considerable sums to protect and exhibit the original copy of the Declaration of Independence in our National Archives? The Fiscal Year 2021 budget request of the National Archives and Records Administration was more than $367 million. By contrast, the “ecological services” budget request from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which covers all manner of activities to identify and protect vanishing wildlife, was a little over $244 million.
An F-35 fighter jet costs the U.S. government about $100 million; the 60-year program to make and deploy these jets is anticipated to cost more than $1 trillion.
It’s safe to say we can afford $1 million to save a small bird and the unique ecosystem in which it lives. Here’s to a brighter future for the Florida grasshopper sparrow and the United States’ other wild species and natural treasures.
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