“The [Xerces] butterfly had been presumed extinct for years when, in 1941, two young entomologists happened upon a small number of Xerces near a creek in San Francisco’s Presidio. Ecstatic to see the butterfly still alive, they netted and killed large numbers of specimens to trade with their friends. It was the last time the butterfly was ever seen.”
Typically, butterfly species have been decimated by habitat loss or fragmentation, and invasive species; the Xerces butterfly was the first American butterfly known to be wiped out by humans. There have been many such missteps in our history, it turns out.
Jon Mooallem, a contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine, has written a book that should be required reading for everyone who gives one whit about endangered species. Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America takes the reader into the field with endangered polar bears, butterflies, and birds—and the well-intentioned people trying to save them. It’s an illuminating, sometimes alarming trip through history and culture, with stories of our apparently inherent desire to conquer and acquire wildlife (collecting specimens either living or dead), as well as our erratic and sometimes misguided attempts to preserve it.
Can we save polar bears in the wild? Mooallem reports that climate change has resulted in shorter feeding seasons and longer fasting seasons for the bears. Some people advocate feeding them so the bears don’t starve, but that changes the equation: are the bears still wild if they are dependent upon us for food and their behaviors change accordingly? Other people believe that of course the bears will adapt to the changes wrought by global warming because that’s what wild animals do. Except, by and large, they don’t, at least not ways that ensure their survival. Instead polar bears have fewer, weaker offspring, and, over a number of generations, eventually die off.
“Half of all species could disappear by the end of the century, and scientists now concede that most of American’s endangered animals will survive only if conservationists keep rigging the world around them in their favor.”
As depressing as the overall picture seems, Wild Ones provides a strangely reassuring frame for what now seems inevitable: despite our best efforts to save species, we are going to lose many of those battles. There are too many forces at work, many of which we put into motion decades ago. If we can’t stop climate change, we can’t save the polar bear. We can mitigate the circumstances and extend the timeframe somewhat, but in the end, the polar bear—and many, many other species—will cease to exist in the wild.
Follow Jon Mooallem on Twitter @jmooallem.