California Forum

Mass extinctions threaten our quality of life

Diseased and dying ponderosa pine are seen along Highway 180 at the Snowline Lodge area near Dunlap.
Diseased and dying ponderosa pine are seen along Highway 180 at the Snowline Lodge area near Dunlap. Fresno Bee file

What’s the value of a turkey vulture? Or a bumblebee? A ponderosa pine?

None of these Northern California species shows up on either the state or federal endangered list – not even lists for threatened species. Yet these familiar and unheralded flora and fauna are among those we may miss the most as the climate continues to warm.

Human activity is causing extinctions of unprecedented scale, scientists say. An analysis published in May found that one in six species will be lost forever if world leaders fail to act on climate change. A separate study determined that we have entered Earth’s sixth mass extinction event. Even using the most conservative estimates, the authors determined that the rate of extinction during the 20th century was up to 100 times faster than it would have been without human impacts.

Most of us don’t think about extinction as we go about our lives. It’s an abstraction – remote and hard to grasp. We measure the value of the threatened northern spotted owl by the timber sales and jobs lost to protect it. We gauge the value of the endangered mountain yellow-legged frog in terms of the pleasure we take in landing one of the non-native Eastern brook trout that are gobbling up tadpoles and adults alike. And when OR-7, a lone gray wolf, wandered from northeastern Oregon into California in 2011 and stayed for 15 months, ranchers worried more about the threat to their livestock than to the future of this endangered species.

It is when we consider the impacts of extinction on our own immediate future that it becomes alarmingly relevant. As the world’s diverse species vanish, so do countless crucial functions we depend upon: the ecosystem services that have enabled humans to have a good standard of living.

Take the often vilified vulture. These scavengers provide the important but underappreciated service of consuming dead animals and the infectious diseases they carry. Then there are bumblebees and other sometimes annoying, stinging insects. They pollinate the crops we eat; without them we would have no fruits, vegetables, nuts or seeds. Trees, including Northern California’s ponderosa pines and Douglas firs, store carbon – as much as 48 pounds per day; none absorbs more than the California redwood. Even the lowly dung beetle serves us by turning animal wastes into organic material that can be reused.

As plants and animals decline around the world, we humans are losing the quality that biodiversity brings to our lives. Snuffing out species is costing us the very variety that is the foundation for our economies, culture, food and human health.

Despite their dire predictions, scientists involved in the recent reports point to signs of hope that world leaders are grasping the consequences of transforming Earth’s vibrant species diversity into the walking dead. Pope Francis’ recent encyclical on the environment, which lamented the loss of biodiversity, was an admonition heard worldwide. President Barack Obama’s surprise announcement of an agreement with China, which set limits on carbon dioxide emissions, will not save the world from a changing climate, but it is a high-level commitment to try. These initiatives are building momentum for the Paris international climate change conference in December.

But the window of opportunity is rapidly closing, scientists warn. Viewing extinction as a threat to our own quality of life is a blatantly self-serving human perspective. If it goads us to grasp the consequences of biodiversity loss, however, we may yet keep our own species from going the way of the dodo and the passenger pigeon.

Jane Braxton Little, a freelance writer, covers science, natural resources and rural Northern California from Plumas County.