Honoring Endangered Species Day in habitats near and far

A multi-generational mashup of readers at my local library recently devoured a cli-fi novel. The story and our ensuing discussion pried open some brave new thinking for a whole bunch of folks. After we mulled some doomsday impacts of a warming planet and the real-life climate change conundrums that grip us individually, we honed in on a single existential question: What’s your personal kryptonite in the climate change narrative?

Species extinction. That was the group’s overwhelming source of concern. Dare I say…panic.

Many kinds of honorary days mark the calendar, and I wouldn’t blame you for letting one slip by. But with a dire 2022 climate change assessment and an echo of community concerns ringing in my ears, Endangered Species Day gains some poignancy.

Think of it as a calendar alert for May 20. A nudge to pause and reflect on what we’re losing in the natural world—and what we can still take action to save. It’s a day to appreciate equity in biodiversity as the world pays unilateral attention to endangered species ranging from snow leopards to salamanders—a reminder that every single plant, animal and fungus counts in a healthy ecosystem.

Stakes are high for endangered species, and the statistics are grim.

Bengal Tiger swimming show head and Looking at the faces of sight

Conservation has brought some notable wildlife back from the brink, but overall biodiversity is declining. Globally, more than 40,000 species are threatened with extinction, according to the IUCN Red List, a critical indicator tool that’s used to inform action on conservation and policy change. Currently, there are more than 142,500 species on the Red List, and those threatened with extinction include 41% of amphibians, 37% of sharks and rays, 34% of conifers, 33% of reef building corals, 26% of mammals and 13% of birds.

A firsthand encounter with endangered species in the wild is one sure way to earn species devotees. I’ve traveled long distances for these experiences, and each one stoked a new tendril of unbridled awe in me: polar bears in the Arctic, Bengal tigers in India, sharks on the Mesoamerican Reef, and Darwin’s giant tortoises in the Galapagos. By the time I got to East Greenland, I was gutted by the landscape of a melting (i.e., vulnerable and threatened) ice sheet as a backdrop to endangered fin whales circling the cove in front of Base Camp.

The truth is, we don’t have to move beyond our relative backyards to consider successes and threats to biodiversity. Species are endangered everywhere.

a successful greater sandhill crane nest in the Yampa Valley in 2021. Credit: Photo courtesy Abby Jensen/Colorado Crane Conservation Coalition.

A successful greater sandhill crane nest in the Yampa Valley in 2021.
© Abby Jensen/Colorado Crane Conservation Coalition

Conservation starts close to home.

Fog obscures the lake off my front porch on an overcast morning, but I clearly hear the guttural trill of greater sandhill cranes flying overhead. The Rocky Mountain population of these leggy red-headed birds dipped so low that the 25 remnant breeding pairs were listed as endangered in 1973. Since then, a species recovery plan and an enthusiastic campaign of community crane education have not only rebounded the birds’ status, but they’ve gained star power with now-commonplace sightings of their wild dances and chick-rearing successes.

With as many as 300 crane pairs now nesting in the valley I call home, sandhill cranes stand tall again in the wetlands and hay meadows as a victorious reminder of what we can save. Average citizens witness the victory daily on spring bike rides and commutes around northwest Colorado.

Meanwhile, the largely undammed river that courses through the same valley is critical habitat to four endangered fishes—the humpback chub, bonytail, Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker—all of which are gasping for recovery after widespread habitat loss due to dams, invasive predators and water diversions. Now climate change is deepening a historic drought that puts the fish under even more pressure with warmer water, and less of it.

Upslope from the fish and cranes, near the peaks that peer down on my cabin, in ponds and marshes above 8,000 feet, Colorado’s only alpine toad species is dwindling. The wee and once-common boreal toad is now endangered, having suffered the assault of habitat loss and a chytrid​ fungus, a pathogen that has been globally devastating to amphibians. But wildlife biologists haven’t given up on the warty ones; they’re planning to translocate as many as 20,000 healthy tadpoles into the Colorado wilderness this summer.

Boreal toad

© Jennie Lay

And last but not least, gray wolves, the big, bad, most controversial endangered species in America, have wandered into my neighborhood. After decades of diminishing hope that endangered wolves might restore their full realm outside Yellowstone, wolves suddenly popped up in northwest Colorado. For so long, this seemed like an impossible journey across Wyoming’s vast wolf kill zone, the harsh Red Desert and a major interstate. But now they’re here, and they have puppies—Colorado’s first pack born since early in the last century.

During austere covid times, I made a winter journey to watch Yellowstone’s wolves. This encounter was my longtime dream made more immediate by Colorado’s voter-supported wolf reintroduction that’s slated for 2023, coupled with the surprising arrival of wild wolves jumping the gun on reintroduction. Bundled up for sub-zero sunrises, we listened to the soulful howls and spied packs moving across the landscape, taking down a bison, negotiating a carcass with foxes, coyotes and bald eagles nipping at their heels. I felt jubilant about the success of Yellowstone, and hopeful that their lessons would reflect south upon Colorado, where a more complete ecosystem with wolves is suddenly knocking at my door.

Everything is connected.

We are all in the front row now, watching the loss of so much wild. It is happening off our front porches and in distant landscapes. And we still have opportunities to save threatened and endangered animals.

The ills of the Anthropocene have warmed the air, poisoned habitats, chopped up landscapes and exterminated “pests” and predators. Carbon dioxide continues to rise in the atmosphere—peaking again in May at around 420 ppm—but even scientists taking measurements and doing the modeling are not without hope. With solid commitment, they tell us the trend still remains reversible.

This is no joke; it’s a lot of grim news out there. I wish we didn’t have to have an Endangered Species Day.

But this is also an opportunity to celebrate the comeback stories that conservation has reaped. It’s a moment to honor successful protection that has worked wonders for species like tigers, mountain gorillas, black rhinos and the wee snail darter. Ideally, Endangered Species Day raises awareness that lingers, and we can put more muscle behind conservation every single day of the year.

Biodiversity is complicated. Threatened species everywhere are counting on us. And someday, wouldn’t it be amazing if we could make Endangered Species Day extinct?