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Ruminations from the Executive Director | The Wildlife Society News
The Wildlifer, June 2012 — June 20, 2012
Here Today, Gone Tomorrow: The Challenge of Endangered Species Recovery

“Just as we become aware of the hidden splendor of the past, we are in danger of denying it to the future. As we reach for the stars, we neglect the flowers beneath our feet.” George Schaller (1980)

In his most recent President’s Podium, Paul Krausman made a strong case for how wildlife habitat is a primary factor influencing conservation success. Many species, especially niche specialists, have evolved a close association with their natural environments, and their survival is therefore highly dependent on the availability of key habitat elements, whether specific foods, water, cover, nesting or denning sites, or escape terrain.

As human populations have grown exponentially worldwide and as habitats have been lost — fragmented by roads, polluted by toxins, altered by climate change and invasive species, and overtaken by industrial, energy, and agricultural development — many species are in decline or nearing the brink of irreversible extinction (Lynas 2010).

The Javan rhino (Rhinoceros sondaicus), for example, is barely hanging on, with fewer than 60 individuals believed to inhabit Ujung Kulon National Park on the island of Java in Indonesia (Butler 2012). A second population in Vietnam was recently declared extinct after the last individual became a victim of poaching (Kinver 2011).

The three-toed pygmy sloth (Bradypus pygmaeus) — an inhabitant of Panama — has plummeted to fewer than 100 individuals (Hance 2012a). In Australia, the Christmas Island pipistrelle (Pipistrellus murrayi), a small insectivorous bat, was recently declared extinct, the first mammalian extinction in Australia in 50 years (Hance 2012b). The Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) is in critical condition due to a virulent emerging disease that is spread by contact (Coopes 2012).

In North America, the sage grouse (Centrocerus urophasianus) may be headed for endangered status if efforts to protect it from rampant energy development prove to be unsuccessful (Zaffos 2012). And the Mexican wolf (Canis lupus baileyi), an endangered subspecies of the grey wolf (Canis lupus), is still teetering on the brink. If it were not for captive breeding and reintroduction programs, it would already be in the dustbin of extinction.

The scope of this global problem is formidable. In his recent book, The God Species: Saving the Planet in the Age of Humans, Mark Lynas (2010 p. 29) indicated that a quarter of the world’s mammals, one-third of its amphibians, around 13 percent of its birds, a quarter of its marine corals, and a quarter of its freshwater fishes are currently at serious risk of extinction, a situation that the author says is arguably “humanity’s most urgent and critical environmental challenge.”

The reasons for this crisis are varied, complex, and often cumulative, involving the multiple habitat issues noted above as well as the spread of new and emerging diseases, human-wildlife conflict, and over-exploitation through poaching and the illegal bushmeat and wildlife trades.

Given the severity of the crisis, where is the high-level discussion about this issue in the halls of governments? Where is the public outrage? Where are the demonstrations? In fact, with so many other distractions, endangered species do not seem to be on many people’s radar anymore. Yet the challenge is still there, and wildlife professionals often seem to be fighting a losing battle.

One of the most significant challenges to the future of biological diversity is a lack of funding (Hutchins et al. 2009). With the current economic downturn, one of the first things that short-sighted politicians seem to cut is funding for endangered species recovery and other environmental issues. Many such cuts have already been made as a result of austerity measures intended to deflate our ballooning state and federal deficits. Without sufficient funding, however, how will critical habitat be acquired or protected, salaries of conservation experts paid, or recovery programs implemented? This is a critical time, and if we don’t address the impending crisis now, there will be no second chance, and therein lies the problem. We cannot afford to defer this important task until later. If we do not act now, our future options will diminish and eventually disappear.

Despite all of the bad news, there are many examples of success. For example, the gray wolf, once rare in the lower 48 states, has made an amazing recovery in the Rocky Mountain region and in the upper Midwest. Grizzly bears (Ursus arctos horribilis) are once again abundant in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. California condors (Gymnogyps californianus) have also just passed an important threshold, with more than 400 birds surviving, 226 of which are living in the wild (Muldoon 2012). But such successes do not happen by accident. Considerable planning and investment is necessary before recovery can take place.

The Black-footed Ferret: A Case for Hope

I was privileged to be a part of concerted efforts to save the critically endangered black-footed ferret (Mustela negripes), an effort that offers a road map for other recovery plans. In 1995, as Director of Conservation and Science for the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA), I organized and moderated a series of three meetings in Denver, Colo. to analyze, update, and revise the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) black-footed ferret recovery plan (Hutchins and Wiese 1996, Black-footed Ferret Recovery Team 2012). Funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and endorsed by FWS, this planning effort was deemed essential for getting the then-struggling program back on track.

At the time, recovery efforts had stalled and there was considerable infighting among the many individuals and organizations involved. The Denver meetings brought representatives from the AZA’s Black-footed Ferret Species Survival Plan together with wildlife biologists, scientists, and veterinarians from FWS, the states of Wyoming, Montana, South Dakota, and Arizona, conservation NGOs, and various universities.

AZA member institutions such as the Smithsonian’s National Zoo Conservation and Breeding Center in Front Royal, Va., the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, and the Phoenix Zoo, along with FWS’s National Black-footed Ferret Breeding Center, were providing captive-bred stock for the reintroduction program and conducting extensive research on husbandry. To help ensure success, I also brought in several individuals who were familiar with mustelid biology and other reintroduction programs (e.g., wolves) to serve as independent consultants. Their job was to lend an objective eye to the proceedings and keep everyone on track.

The resulting plan has almost entirely come to fruition. Writing on December 18, 1997, then-U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Regional Director, Wilbur (“Skip”) Ladd stated that, “Although there were several factors that have helped give better direction to the program, one of the most important was the comprehensive review conducted by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association during 1995-1996, and the resulting action plan” (Ladd, pers. comm.).

Black-footed ferrets had been thought to be extinct until small populations were discovered in Mellette County, S.D., in 1964 and near Meeteetse, Wyo., in 1981. All known remaining animals were captured in 1981 and placed in a captive-breeding program. All current surviving animals, in captivity and in the wild, are descended from just seven founder animals (Miller et al. 1996, Bessken 2010).

Black-footed ferrets are dependent on their primary prey — the once abundant prairie dog (Cynomys spp.) — for survival. These colonial rodents make up about 80 percent of the ferret’s diet. Prairie dogs, considered to be pests by ranchers and farmers, were poisoned and shot in vast numbers over many decades, which contributed to the decline in ferret numbers. Adding insult to injury, ferret populations were further decimated by diseases, notably plague and distemper, which almost delivered the knock-out blow.

Early reintroduction efforts were not that successful, having initially experienced mortality rates as high as 80 percent. Much of this was due to predation by coyotes (Canis latrans) and badgers (Taxidea taxus), often the result of disoriented captive-bred ferrets spending too much time above ground. In order to turn the ferrets’ fortunes around, scientists had to develop effective rearing and pre-release conditioning programs to ensure the survival of animals post-release (Miller et al. 1998).

For example, by placing ferrets in artificial burrow systems, captive-reared animals learned where to hide when threatened by danger. More recently, scientists developed a vaccine against plague (Rocke and Abbott 2012), an important advance, which was recommended during the 1995-1996 planning effort. As a result of all the systematic planning, cutting-edge research, and on-the-ground work that has been accomplished in the past few decades, the number of wild black-footed ferrets now greatly exceeds the number found in captivity, and the number of release sites has also continued to grow, the most recent being in northern Mexico. The black-footed ferret is a great example of what can be done when people put their collective minds together and when sufficient resources are found to complete the work.

Your Society’s Role

The Wildlife Society is an organization whose members are very active in endangered species recovery. In recent years, TWS has embraced the entire wildlife profession, ranging from basic wildlife science to game management to endangered species recovery. No other professional society can claim to be focused solely on all wildlife taxa, exclusive of fish.

Our Society has strong position statements on conserving biological diversity (TWS 2010), threatened and endangered species (TWS 2011), and the U.S. Endangered Species Act (TWS 2011), which form the core of our science-based approach. The staff and members of TWS are frequently involved in independent peer reviews of recovery plans, such as the recent evaluation of the northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina) recovery plan (see Anonymous 2007). Many articles on endangered species occur in our peer-reviewed journals and books and in our member magazine, The Wildlife Professional. Last, but certainly not least, TWS’s Government Affairs  Department frequently comments on and educates key decision makers about the impacts of U.S. government policy on endangered species recovery, including the Endangered Species Act.

I often wonder what kind of world we are going to leave our children and grandchildren. Will it be one blessed by a wide range of biological diversity? Or are we facing a future without a number of animals and plants that are of great ecological and cultural importance to humankind? And what will the ecological consequences be should our nation or other governments choose to ignore the challenge of conserving endangered species?

Furthermore, what impact will the loss of species ultimately have on the quality of human life? The jury is still out on all these questions, but we do not have a lot of time to find answers. Every minute we hesitate, every hour we wait, every year that passes us by is another lost opportunity to take decisive action. Many species may be here today but gone tomorrow, and the world will not be a better off as a result.

The irrevocable loss of myriad species is not inevitable, and there is much that can be done to reverse the current negative trends. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work. There is much that TWS and its members can do individually and collectively. As a professional and scientific society, TWS has a role in educating the public and key decision makers about the perils associated with the loss of biological diversity (e.g., ecosystem disruption and consequent loss of ecosystem services). We can also play a role in helping to ensure that governments — state, provincial, and federal — continue to invest in biodiversity conservation, even in the face of declining budgets.

TWS will also help educate its own members about the methods used to successfully recover threatened and endangered species and/or to conserve or restore critical habitat needed for such species to survive. This can be done through TWS publications — both popular and peer reviewed (e.g., Silvy 2012) — and through our web and social networking sites and blog. By keeping our members informed of relevant policies and other news influencing threatened and endangered species recovery, and by offering science-based input to state, provincial, and federal agencies as they develop policies related to endangered species recovery and conservation, the wildlife professionals of TWS can make a real and lasting difference, helping to ensure that what is here today will be here tomorrow.


Anon. 2007. TWS: Northern spotted owl recovery plan flawed.

Bessken, C. 2010. Black-footed ferret.

Black-footed Ferret Recovery Team. 2012. Black-footed ferret recovery.

Butler, R. 2012. Fighting a last-ditch battle to save the rare Javan rhino.

Coopes, A. 2012. Race to save the devil downunder.

Hance, J. 2012a. Less than 100 pygmy sloths survive.

Hance, J. 2012b. Island bat goes extinct after Australian officials hesitate.

Hutchins, M., Eves, H., and Mittermeier, C .G. 2009. Fueling the conservation engine: Where will the money come from to drive fish and wildlife management and conservation. Pp. 184- 197 in Manfredo, M., Vaske, J.J., Brown, P.J., Decker, D.J., and Duke, E.A. (eds.) Wildlife and Society: The Science of Human Dimensions. Washington, DC: Islands Press.

Hutchins, M., and Wiese, R. 1996. Black-footed Ferret Recovery Program Analysis and Action Plan. Bethesda, Md.: American Zoo and Aquarium Association.

Kinver, M. 2011. Javan rhino now extinct in Vietnam.

Krausman, P. 2012. Habitat: An essential element of wildlife management.

Lynas, M. 2011. The God Species: Saving the Planet in the Age of Humans. Washington, D.C.; National Geographic Society.

Miller, B., Biggins, D., Vargas, A., Hutchins, M., Hanebury, L, Godbey, J., Anderson, S., Wemmer, C., and Oldemeier, J. 1998. The captive environment and reintroduction: The black-footed ferret as a case study with comments on other taxa. Pp. 97- 112 in Shepherdson, D.J., Mellen, J.D., and Hutchins, M. (eds.) Second Nature: Environmental Enrichment for Captive Animals. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Miller, B., Reading, R.P., and Forrest, S. 1996. Prairie Night: Black-footed Ferrets and the Recovery of Endangered Species. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Muldoon, K. 2012. California condors hit a milestone — a population of 405 — after nearly going extinct.

Rocke, T.E. and Abbott, C. 2012. Sylvatic plague vaccine. The Wildlife Professional 6(1) 50-53.

Silvey, N. (ed.) 2012. Wildlife Techniques Manual-Management, 7th edition, Vol. 2. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press.

The Wildlife Society. 2009. Position Statement: Conserving Biological Diversity.

The Wildlife Society. 2010. Position Statement: Threatened and Endangered Species in the U.S.

The Wildlife Society. 2011. Position Statement: The U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Zaffos, J. 2012. Conservation agreements try to head off endangered species listing.


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