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The Planet Cannot Stand This Presidency

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 21, 2017

Akikiki

by Richard Conniff/The New York Times

Heroic acts to preserve our national heritage often take place off the battlefield. In the 1890s, for instance, a handful of people, mostly friends of Theodore Roosevelt, stepped forward to protect the American bison as it was about to be butchered into extinction. Likewise, the conservationist Rachel Carson and her followers saved the bald eagle and other species from poisoning by pesticides in the 1960s and ’70s.

We cannot, of course, expect this type of heroism on behalf of wildlife from the Trump administration. On the contrary, the challenge is to figure out which of the many species the administration is gleefully stripping of protection now stands in the most immediate danger. Will the greater sage grouse go extinct as the administration works to unravel a compromise protection plan already agreed on by all parties? Will freshwater mussel species vanish because coal companies are once again free to dump toxic waste in streams?

Among the many species the Trump administration could erase from the annals of life on earth, a couple of small birds in Hawaii stand out: The akikiki (Oreomystis bairdi) and akekee (Loxops caeruleirostris) are honeycreeper species inhabiting a remote mountain forest on the island of Kauai.

Like almost all of Hawaii’s native wildlife, they’re vulnerable to invasive species. Rats, for instance, can find their nests and eat their young. But these birds were safe until recently from at least one introduced pest. Their mountain habitat was just a little too cold for mosquitoes. Over the past 10 years, though, as the planet has warmed, the mosquitoes have arrived — bringing avian malaria with them.

As a result, the akikiki and akekee face likely extinction in the next five to 10 years. That makes this the critical moment when heroic action could save them. One strategy is to collect eggs and raise enough of them in captivity to rebuild the population in the wild. (If this doesn’t sound heroic, try climbing a 40-foot-tall extension ladder in a high wind on a mountaintop to pick eggs from a nest at the feathery end of a tree branch and bring them down intact.) Another strategy is to introduce large numbers of male mosquitoes carrying the wrong strain of a symbiotic bacterium called Wolbachia. The eggs that result from the mating of mosquitoes with mismatched strains are infertile, causing the mosquito population to crash — and giving the birds a chance to recover.

Why bother? Before humans arrived 1,000 years ago, Hawaii was home to 113 bird species found nowhere else in the world. Fewer than 42 remain today, and all but 11 are threatened or endangered. Saving them is about saving something far richer than our sun-and-fun aloha fantasy of Hawaii.

But it will take federal funding, and adequately staffed agencies to manage the work of recovery. Instead, those agencies are now warning conservationists that, under the proposed federal budget, the necessary resources are unlikely to be available to save two small and seemingly insignificant honeycreeper species.

There’s never been much room in Donald Trump’s world for heroism, except in matters of getting and spending. Laying waste the lives that past presidents, Democratic and Republican alike, have regarded as an essential part of America’s greatness? For this administration, that’s not even a line item.

                                                                      END

Richard Conniff is an award-winning science writer for magazines and a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times. His books include House of Lost Worlds (Yale University Press, 2016) and The Species Seekers (W.W. Norton, 2010).

Read the full column here, plus an introduction by Bill McKibben, and brief accounts by a half-dozen other writers about species and habitats this administration could destroy.

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