These Species Have Hung On for Millions of Years. Will the Trump Administration Push Them to Extinction?
The president’s terrible policies could leave an indelible mark on the country’s biological heritage.
Pronghorn of the American West have been springing across this continent—at up to 60 miles per hour—for approximately 17 million years. Though sometimes called antelopes, these fleet-footed mammals are actually one of the few remaining species of giraffids, which also include Africa’s giraffes and okapis. The distinction led paleontology writer Brian Switek to call pronghorn “charismatic, strange beasts that have a touch of the prehistoric about them.”
But now, a reality TV host–turned–president may push these ancient ungulates over the edge of extinction. They’re not alone. Look across the country and you’ll find many species that quietly plodded along for many millennia before hitting a roadblock with the human race. Though the blame for these animals’ becoming endangered doesn’t lay squarely at President Trump’s feet, each time his administration hamstrings an agency or champions industry over ecology, these species inch a little closer to oblivion.
Let’s start with those pronghorn, which have been around since before North and South America were connected—before human beings even existed. Once champions at survival, they even outlasted North America’s super-speedy, cheetahlike predator, the one scientists believe pushed pronghorn into evolving to become so freaky fast.
But now the country’s fastest land animal is dangerously close to running into a dead end. Just 400 Sonoran pronghorn remain after losing ground and forage to livestock and other human development. The added stress of rapid climate change hasn’t helped. A severe drought in 2002, for instance, leveled the population to just 19 animals. That population is currently divided between the deserts of Arizona and northern Mexico. If Trump builds his offensive border wall, the two groups will have little hope of ever meeting again. The exchange of genetic diversity between the remaining pronghorn will dry up, making both populations less resilient and bringing the species closer to extinction.
America’s tallest bird is also in trouble. This five-foot crane has stalked the continent’s swamps and wetlands for crustaceans, amphibians, and fish since the Eocene—at least 33 million years ago, a time when North America and Europe were still locked in Pangea’s embrace and forests covered the earth’s poles.
The United States had as many as 20,000 whooping cranes as recently as the 1800s, but rampant hunting and habitat lost to agriculture cut the whoopers’ population off at the knees. By 1941, just 21 of the birds were left. But thanks to Herculean captive breeding efforts, whooping cranes now number around 600.
“If you take the bigger picture, saving this species from imminent extinction has been successful,” says Erik Johnson, director of bird conservation for Audubon Louisiana. “The wild population has approximately doubled since 1994, and the captive population has about tripled since then, but there’s a lot left to do.”
This is why it was so disappointing to learn that one program that performs this species-saving work at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland will be shutting down, thanks to Trump’s proposed 2018 budget.
The center says other captive breeding and conservation efforts will continue for the species, and all the birds in its care will move to other facilities. The closure, however, will slow the rate at which new whooping cranes make it into the wild to restore their species to its former glory.
According to fossils found in 2016, the oldest common relative of all seven of today’s sea turtle species lived about 80 million years ago, right off the coast of present-day Alabama. So sea turtles haven’t just been around for a while; they’re pretty much America’s oldest charismatic megafauna.
These reptiles are also really, really lucky. Because about 66 million years ago, an asteroid more than six miles wide struck Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, setting off a global cataclysm that hastened the end for 75 percent of all flora and fauna species on earth. Including the dinosaurs.
But sea turtles like the leatherback survived to swim the shores of every seaside state. And they’re still around today. Unfortunately for them, so is The Donald.
By extending into the Gulf of Mexico, Trump’s border wall could harm green, hawksbill, Kemp’s ridley, loggerhead, and leatherback sea turtles. But the reptiles are no safer on the other side of the country. The Trump administration announced in June that it would be canceling a restriction recommended by the Pacific Fishery Management Council that would penalize the region’s swordfish fishery for catching too many sea turtles and marine mammals. The reason? Because the industry has cleaned up its act in recent years, though conservation groups disagree.
Todd Steiner, director of the California-based Turtle Island Restoration Network, told the Los Angeles Times: “The Trump administration has declared war on whales, dolphins, and turtles off the coast of California.”
Polar bears have been prowling and surfing the ice sheets of the far north for around 150,000 years. That seems recent compared with other species on this list. Still, when humans were just taking their first steps out of Africa, polar bears had already been cozy up in the Arctic for around 70,000 years.
The thing about these bears is that they starve without polar sea ice, which gives them access to fatty seals and other prey during the winter. But the thing about sea ice is that the Arctic needs to be cold enough in order to form it. This has been no problem for the region for most of the last 36 million years, but now it is, thanks to the climate change fueled by our carbon emissions. Each decade since 1980, the Arctic’s sea ice coverage has been 13.3 percent smaller than the decade before.
Even so, Trump says he doesn’t believe in climate change. Or at the very least, doesn’t understand how it works.
The president has also promised to open up the Arctic to offshore drilling, with the first exploratory wells scheduled to be drilled in December of this year. And by encouraging more coal mining on federal lands and quashing studies questioning the health effects of coal extraction, the Trump administration sets the stage for still more carbon pollution, leading to less sea ice and even bigger troubles for polar bears (and people) down the road.
Add it all up, and polar bear populations could shrink by two-thirds by 2050.
If you thought sea turtles and pronghorn were old, nothing on this list holds a candle to bivalve mollusks. Their earliest fossils date back to the Cambrian explosion—more than 500 million years ago—and are thought to predate the stereotypically ancient, and now extinct, trilobite.
Speaking of bivalves, did you know that the United States contains the greatest diversity of freshwater mussel species in the world? There are 78 species just in the Midwest. Troublingly, more than half of those are classified as either endangered, threatened, or of special concern.
And now, thanks to Trump’s efforts to repeal the Clean Water Rule, which clarifies which waterways qualify for protection under the Clean Water Act, mussels remain in harm’s way. While working to finalize the rule, Jo-Ellen Darcy, President Obama’s assistant secretary of the Army (Civil Works), says she and her coauthors reviewed more than a million public comments and cited more than 1,200 peer-reviewed studies. “By tossing out years of scientific study and public input,” Darcy told the Washington Post, “Scott Pruitt and the Trump administration are muddying the very waters the Clean Water Rule sought to clarify.”
Dams, sedimentation, pollution, and exotic invaders are all currently degrading the country’s freshwater ecosystems, and because mussels are mostly sedentary filter feeders, they can’t move away when water quality goes south. Even though these bivalves have proved themselves capable of rapid evolution in response to threats, every species has its limits. Speaking of which, Trump also repealed a rule that protected streams from mining pollution. Along with dirtying the drinking water for human communities, the move amounts to a direct attack on the recovery of mussels like the Ouachita rock pocketbook, the inflated heelsplitter, and the Appalachian monkeyface—species whose ancestors were filtering the world’s streams before the Appalachian Mountains were even thrust up in the middle of Pangea. We should be saying thank you—not taking away their protections.
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