….The nest belonged to an akikiki, a small gray-and-white bird that feeds on insects, doesn’t sing much and has noticeably large feet. As head of the Kauai Forest Bird Recovery Project, Crampton is tasked with saving the akikiki, along with the rest of the island’s endangered birds. Even by conservation standards, this can be dispiriting work. Of Kauai’s eight remaining native forest birds, four are listed as endangered or threatened, including a honeycreeper so rare that researchers have managed to find just 14 of its eggs in three years, of which only four have survived.
….Because akikiki numbers dropped so rapidly — the population is estimated to have fallen by 83 percent in 10 years, thanks to a combination of avian malaria and invasive rats, leaving just 468 birds — the government approved a plan to start a captive-breeding program in 2015, using eggs harvested from nests in the wild….
Under the rules of the Endangered Species Act, once a species is discovered to be at risk of extinction, government agencies are required by law to take steps to save it. For years, critics have challenged that mandate, arguing that it undercuts the ability to weigh a species’ value or to consider the economic impact of its preservation — for instance, the cost of prohibiting logging in a valuable tract of forest. Since Donald Trump took office, these objections have gained ground; there are currently six bills pending in Congress, all aimed at overhauling (some would say gutting) the Endangered Species Act….
….Assigning value to species is a nearly impossible undertaking, because it involves a bewildering number of variables, including ecological importance, utility (coral reefs can act as breakwaters during coastal storms), the species’ place in our heritage, even its beauty or symbolism. Conservation has no formula for weighting these factors, either alone or in combination, and it’s hard to imagine one that people could agree on. How do we decide whether the wolf or the snow leopard is more valuable?
In response, some conservation groups have argued that we should put our efforts toward saving the most genetically diverse species, with the goal of increasing our long-term ecological resiliency. (In this view, saving the akikiki, which is one of 18 living species of Hawaiian honeycreeper, would be a low priority.) Others have suggested prioritizing “functional diversity”: the preservation of key species, like predators and pollinators, whose presence can radically affect an ecosystem.
All of which makes the akikiki a complicated case in point: In the face of growing political and environmental pressures, how should we decide what to save?…
…Of the 1,280 endangered animals and plants listed by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, 557 are from Hawaii, including the short-tailed albatross, the Hawaiian hoary bat and the Kauai cave wolf spider, as well as four species of turtle, six damselflies, two varieties of pond shrimp, four snails and seven kinds of yellow-faced bee. Conservationists have called the islands “the extinction capital of the world.”…
….our role as stewards of the earth is becoming more and more like that of doctors in a global intensive-care unit, trapped in a cycle of heroic, end-of-life measures. Many conservationists now operate in a state of constant maintenance: endlessly working to weed out invasive plants and predators, while trying to prop up species that have fallen into decline. At worst, an endangered animal becomes a literal ward of the state: preserved only in breeding facilities or in tiny, meticulously maintained “wild” habitats. “They’re like patients that are never going to be discharged from the hospital,” the environmental writer Emma Marris told me. “It’s a permanent situation.”
The official term for such species is “conservation-reliant.” When I spoke with Michael Scott, a wildlife biologist at the University of Idaho who helped direct the California condor research effort, he estimated that roughly 84 percent of species on the United States endangered list are currently conservation-reliant. Of those, he added, a vast majority are in Hawaii. “Hawaii is the world capital of conservation-reliant species,” Scott said….
…In short, it’s fair to ask why, exactly, biodiversity matters. As Thomas says: “Even if we were to lose 10 percent of all species in the next hundred years, would biology stop? Would ecology stop? No. In fact, most people wouldn’t even be aware of the loss.” Given how radically we’ve already altered the landscape, how bad would it be if we just kept doing what we’re doing: paving the land, overfishing the oceans and letting the chips fall where they may?
Faced with this dilemma, some conservationists have tried to shift the focus to an economic argument known as “ecosystem services”: the idea that we benefit from preserving biodiversity either because it saves us money (mangroves prevent coastal erosion that we would otherwise have to handle with an expensive engineering project) or because it contains something of value to us, either now or in the future. For instance, a biodiverse planet may provide a first defense against global warming. Or it may act as a repository of potential discoveries: new materials that mimic the strength of spider silk; drones modeled after insects; an anticancer drug derived from Amazonian moss….
….The true problem, then, is not whether we would notice those vanished species and ecosystems; it’s that there’s no good way to quantify the opportunity cost of our loss, which in turn can lead us to underestimate it. “The species we have now are the ancestors of all future species,” Thomas says. “And I don’t think we know enough about ecology or evolution, or how humans are going to affect the planet over the next thousand years, to bet on which animal or plant to keep.”….
The biologist E.O. Wilson eloquently argued against living in a world of crows and rats, and against the loss of beautiful, fragile species like snow leopards, white rhinos and tiny mouse lemurs; even if you never see a lemur or an arctic fox in person, the world can be a richer place by having such creatures in it. Others simply see conservation as a moral duty: because we’re the ones creating these problems, isn’t it up to us to fix them?…
…Whether we regard conservation as an ethical or an economic issue, we’re still faced with the question of how we decide what to save. In an ideal world, Michael Scott told me, conservation science would have the resources to study this question, rather than being stuck reacting to the latest crisis. “Figuring out which species and ecosystems are the most important to protect is a complicated project,” Scott says. “At this point, just coming up with a list of qualities we want to investigate would be a good start.”…