Monday, May 30, 2016

The Problem with Species Conservation

I have written before1 on the topic of endangered species, and the many issues involved. First, and most notably, there is the simple fact that, in a very real way, protecting endangered species is against nature. After all, species have always gone extinct, and always will. it is a vital part of evolution. Not only do species change, but those members of a species who do not often find themselves dwindling away to nothing. To try to prevent this is, in a very real way, to try to stop evolution2. After all, if the old species is not allowed to go away, what niche will the new variants occupy? How would we have fared if our simian ancestors were "preserved" or if dinosaur conservation had been an issue in the past? I hate to be a curmudgeon, but perhaps sea turtles and snail darters and others exist in such small numbers that they risk extinction because they are just remarkably inefficient.

Which brings me to the second issue, numbers. We cannot simply say "there are X of this species, it is endangered", but that seems to be precisely what is happening. Recent news talked about grizzlies in Yellowstone, and the debate about removing them from the list. According to some experts, they are still "too few" to no longer be endangered, but rangers argue they are numerous enough the park cannot support more. This points out a problem I mentioned before, top level predators, large omnivores, even a few large herbivores and scavengers, require massive ranges to support them, especially those who exist in food-poor zones. Given the need for such large ranges, they will never exist in large numbers. How many tigers can the tundra support? How many polar bears? The food needs are simply too great for them to have ever been numerous. Even if we froze the globe and eliminated all environmental "threats", as well as all competitors, the polar bear would still not be terribly numerous. It is simply a matter of carrying capacity of the environment. And no endangered species list -- or cap and trade scheme -- will ever change that fact.

And that brings me to the matter which inspired this writing, the third issue I mentioned previously, and what strikes me as one of the biggest problems with any scheme to protect endangered species. But, before going into details, let me ask a question to illustrate this problem:

Is the Preble's jumping mouse a species?

Or, maybe even a better one: are Maine coon cats a species?

How about pit bull terriers?

To answer the last two, no, at least in general. For the most part, despite the wide range of appearances, sizes and shapes, the various breeds of cats and dogs are not considered separate species. On the other hand, the Preble's jumping mouse, which is almost indistinguishable from a host of other jumping mice, and many claim is absolutely identical to the Bear Lodge Meadow jumping mouse, is a separate species. So, while a doberman and a chihuahua are the same species, two mice even experts cannot agree differ in any way are not.

Which brings us to the problem, a lot of "endangered species" would, but for the list, be considered subspecies, at best, or maybe simply variations in color, markings or other traits. Many differ from one another in quite minimal ways, being capable of interbreeding and being indistinguishable by any but an expert (and sometimes not even then), yet to preserve an absolutely minute genetic variation, possessed by a tiny population occupying a single location, we will impose hundreds of millions of dollars of costs on land owners, businesses, farmers and others.

And that is absurd.

But then the emotional arguments start. The moment you argue that protecting a trivial micropopulation differing only in a minute coloring variation, the endangered species list supporters will make it sound as if are Cruella deVille, wishing to wipe out all big cats on Earth to make a nice batch of Chanel no 5 with Extra Civet. Instead of reasoned argument why they think preserving this trivial little population matters, they will wax enthusiastic about the wonder of nature, or else present the mythical "possible cure for cancer"3 argument, neither of which is really valid.

Let us look at this realistically.

First, millions, even billions, of species have gone extinct and the same number will in the future, it is part of existence. In many cases, they only "went extinct" in the sense that part of their population evolved into some other species and the remainder died out. Thus, it is even questionable if they died out at all. After all, if a tiny subspecies is disappearing, is it not possible because some other variant, either evolved from it, or from a common ancestor, is doing a better job?

Second, despite all those extinctions, life went on. There is lots of scare talk about the negative impact of extinction of this species or that, but in truth, the countless past extinctions did not end the world, nor will those in the future.

Third, if a species is small enough in numbers that it is endangered, either because it is spread so thin, or isolated to a tiny region, then how much impact could it be having now? If it numbers in the dozens, what could they be doing now that will cause the world to end if they were not there?

Fourth, most of these endangered species are not species, but subspecies, with similar, nearly identical species performing the same tasks in nature. Often it is competition from these rivals that is the reason they are endangered. Thus, even if they disappeared, some very similar species is likely to remain doing the same thing.

Thus, it seems simply absurd to worry that any species disappearing will have some negative impact. There is just no logically reason to assume this would be the case.

Of course, I am not suggesting we go out and intentionally wipe out species, that is needless cruelty without purpose. On the other hand, species have vanished in the past and life went on. The disappearance of, say, the dodo had so little impact no one other than a few mariners noticed. And the same is likely true of most species on the endangered species list. And thus, to argue we must pay to keep them alive "for our collective good" is simply absurd.

Now if individuals want to buy up these habitats and pay to preserve the species out of their own pockets, I say more power to them. As a supporter of the market and property rights, people have every right to pay out of pocket to preserve whatever they wish. But when it comes to imposing costs via government, I have to say I see no justification for doing so.


1. See "Extinction""The Mythical Cure for Cancer", "Why "Hope for the Best, Plan for the Worst" is Bad Policy", "Environmentalists Versus Evolution", "Environmentalist Inertia", ""Better Safe Than Sorry" Usually Leaves Us Even More Sorry, And Much Less Safe", ""Better Safe Than Sorry" Revisited", "Certainty and Pop Science" and "Primitivist Delusions".

2. In particular, see "Environmentalists Versus Evolution". A similar trend in sociology can be found in "Cultural Imperialism and Preserving Cultures".

3. See "The Mythical Cure for Cancer".

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