For the Conservation Curious

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Threatened, Endangered, Extinct: What Does it all Mean?! July 30, 2010

There is a lot of scientific terminology out there; how can anyone know what it all means? I work in the conservation field and sometimes even I am not 100 percent sure what all the terms means in relation to the commonness or rarity of a species, so I will try to give a brief summary here… 

When talking about threatened, endangered and extinct species, it helps to know whether you are discussing it from the state, federal or international perspective, because each may have slightly different definitions and regulations.  In terms of the U.S. federal government, some species fall under the Endangered Species Act.  Richard Nixon created this Act in 1973 to protect “imperiled” species from extinction caused by human development and economic growth.  The term “imperiled” is more commonly referred to as “endangered” and it signifies a species that could become extinct – i.e. completely die out on the planet.  

Once a species is put on the federal list it doesn’t mean that it will stay on there forever.  A conservationist’s ultimate goal might be to restore a species and its habitat to such an extent that the species is no longer endangered or threatened.  When that occurs the species is de-listed and loses some of the protections afforded to it by the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  The bald eagle and gray wolf are examples of animals that were once on the brink of extinction, but thanks to conservation efforts, bans on hunting and pesticide laws, are now rebounding enough.  Species can also be “downlisted,” meaning that the threats against them have lessened, so they go from a status of endangered to threatened. 

While every state must obey the federal rules that apply to animals under the ESA states can also have their own versions of ESAs that cover other plants and animals.  California, for example, has their own ESA – the most comprehensive of all state acts (it’s modeled after the federal act).  Any threatened or endangered species in the state is protected under those regulations.  Their Department of Fish and Game works with developers, land owners and others to try to lessen the negative impacts of shopping mall, housing development, road construction, etc. on the listed species.  

My home state of Pennsylvania, on the other hand, does not have its own ESA.  There are “jurisdictional agencies,” however, that can create their own regulations protecting threatened and endangered species from harm.  The Pa. Fish and Boat Commission, as an example, has a list of protected reptiles, amphibians and fish – if the Commission catches someone hunting, trapping or otherwise harming these species they will be fined and/or put in jail.  The same goes for mammals and birds.  Unfortunately there is no state list of protected plants and insects in Pa.  If a developer wanted to build an industrial park on a field of endangered sedge, they could do so with no penalty or required mitigation.  State agencies still try to work with the developer to prevent this from happening but there are no legal “teeth” to it – it can only be a suggestion, not a requirement. 

Extinction is forever; you might have heard that phrase before.  While the statement is generally true, sometimes you hear of a supposedly extinct species, but then a few individuals are found, out of the blue.  The indri, a large lemur on the island of Madagascar, is one such species, as is the ivory-billed woodpecker, which some people claim to have seen in recent years in Arkansas.   I like to hope that there are enough pockets of good habitat in the world, away from the hands of man, where these so-called extinct species can continue to live on.  Sadly some species are truly extinct… the dodo bird and passenger pigeon are two well-known examples.  We can’t get those creatures back unless cloning on a Jurassic Park scale ever takes place. 

When you hear the word “extinct,” it typically applies on a global scale, but some species are locally-extinct (meaning that they have disappeared in a given area but more may survive elsewhere).  This is also referred to as “extirpation.”  Then there are the species that are “extinct in the wild,” meaning that the only remaining individuals of a species are in captivity, like the Hawaiian crow, Scimitar Oryx and Barbary lion.  Zoos may do captive breeding to increase the population with the hope of releasing some back into the wild, but that won’t be possible for every species.  Some have no habitat to go back to, like the red-tailed black shark.  This small freshwater fish, common in the aquarium trade (I had 2 growing up!), is extinct in the wild.  Dams on rivers in Thailand are the main blame for the species’ extinction, and unless someone removes the dams, there is little change the fish could ever be reintroduced.  

When you get down to it, this terminology encompasses the breadth of species out there, our impacts (both positive and negative) on them, and the need to conserve what we can.  For as John Muir, one of the fathers of the conservation movement, once said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”  If we lose an endangered species to extinction, it may affect many other species as well. 


Grenades and Butterflies can Coexist July 23, 2010

Filed under: Science — newdomino @ 2:45 PM
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They might seem strange bedfellows – butterflies and grenades – but the other day I got to see firsthand how these two seemingly incompatible objects are existing harmoniously on the same tract of land.  Specifically I am referring to the rare Regal fritillary butterfly and Fort Indiantown Gap (FIG), an Army National Guard training center in central Pennsylvania. 

The Regal fritillary butterfly was once found in 50 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties but thanks to changes in land use (fewer small farms, more housing developments, old fields growing into forests, etc) these orange and black butterflies can now only be found in Pa. at FIG.  In fact, this is one of only two sites in the northeast where people can see them (the other is a smaller site at Radford Army Ammunition Plant in Virginia).  Other populations live in states like Montana, Colorado and Oklahoma.

So the only two sites in the east where this butterfly can be found both are Army properties? When thinking about what goes on at a place like FIG – Guard members learning how to drive tanks, throw grenades and practice shooting targets with machine guns – it is hard to imagine that butterflies and the plants that support them could survive, but in fact they are thriving, thanks to the work of some great biologists.  When the butterfly was first discovered at the site, the Guard agreed to prohibit training exercises on over 200 acres of the property so that research could be done to determine the habitat requirements of the butterfly.  The biologists discovered that the plants that the butterflies and their caterpillars feed on need the disturbances created by the military activities to survive.  The tank tracks and periodic fires from ordnance prevent trees from growing up and shading out the milkweed, thistles and violets that sustain the butterflies and their larva. 

The discovery that human intervention is what is keeping the Regal fritillary butterfly’s habitat on-site at FIG has inspired the biologists to use this as a model for other landowners in the area.  State parks like Memorial Lake and Swatara, along with National Park Service sites like Gettysburg and Valley Forge, are working with staff from FIG to create their own warm season grass and thistle/milkweed/violet meadows on their properties to reintroduce these beautiful butterflies to more sites throughout the state.  Perhaps one day these sunny-colored butterflies will once again be found in dozen of Pa. counties?

Want to see the butterflies in person?  FIG is closed to the public but occasionally has organized tours of the butterfly meadows.  For more information about tours and FIG, go to


REPOST – Meet the Scientists Campaign July 14, 2010

Filed under: Science — newdomino @ 2:13 PM
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Although that follows below was NOT written by me, I thought this was very pertinent to you fellow blog readers and to my mission of making science more user-friendly.  Thanks to Climate Progress for this great blog post!

What do you think of the Union of Concerned Scientists ad campaign, “Scientists are Curious for Life”?

July 14, 2010


The Union of Concerned Scientists has launched a new ad campaign.  It is part of their long-standing effort to shine a light on the scientific truth about human-caused global warming

The thinking behind the ads, according to UCS President Kevin Knobloch, is that “People like science and scientists, but they often don’t have a good idea of who they are as people.” 

Of Dr. Inouye, we find out: 

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been asking questions about the birds and the bees. How do they fly? What do they eat? 

Now that I’m a trained scientist, my questions may be more sophisticated, but the passion is the same. I wonder what climate change is doing to the life cycle of wildflowers, and how bumblebees and hummingbirds are reacting to those changes. The bug’s-eye view shows me that our world is warming like never before. My name is David Inouye, and I’m a concerned scientist. 

To learn more about my work, visit

I asked filmmaker/scientist Randy Olson, author of Don’t Be Such a Scientist:  Talking Substance in an Age of Style, for his thoughts.  He wrote me: 

I’m very, very impressed with the Union of Concerned Scientists’ “Meet the Scientists” campaign.  It’s the sort of positive messaging for science and scientists that is needed — an effort that simply fuels the fires of the polls that show the public in general has an overall positive impression of science, despite the recent attacks. 

This is a crucial element in overcoming the unjustified negativity of the anti-climate science crowd.  The most important element for science to work properly is to retain the respect and trust of the general public.  A key part of that is effective public relations.  These vignettes of scientists are exactly that — they are humanizing, friendly, warm and most importantly are honest — based on true, simple tidbits from their past that people can connect with.  They are not “spin” or any sort of deception. 

All the campaign needs now is large scale funding (if only we knew someone who recently had raised $300 million for the mass communication of climate change …). 

That last sentence was a jibe at the Alliance for Climate Protection, a group that is doing very good work, but whose ads could probably be better. 

The ads tell stories of three scientists.   Here’s the one about Julia Cole: 


I’ve always been an explorer. Just ask my mother.  Today, it’s leading me deep into the caves of the American Southwest.  My work relates what ’s going on below to what’s going on above:  I’ve found that stalagmites hold clues about the climate record of the past. Surprising connections like this one are helping me track how the planet is warming like never before. My name is Julia Cole, and I’m a concerned scientist. 

And lastly, Cameron Wake: 


In high school I was a romantic—and I still am. Faraway places have always filled me with wonder. 

That’s why I chose a career that takes me to our planet’s most inhospitable climates. I get to mountaineer my way to new discoveries. My research on Arctic glaciers has revealed how our world is warming like never before. My name is Cameron Wake, and I’m a concerned scientist. 

The ads are fine by me.  They aren’t meant to solve the whole problem, though I tend to agree with the findings of Stanford communications expert Jon Krosnick that a large majority of Americans continue to believe global warming is real and trust scientists

My only quibble with the ads is that the public — or rather the persuadable public — knows that the world is warming.  The fact that it is “warming like never before” is a good message.  But I would have urged UCS to have one of the three scientists be someone whose work has been on attribution, on the showing how we know that humans are causing this unprecedented warming.  That’s where the polling starts to be weaker. 

But kudos to UCS for these ads.  More groups need to do this.