game fish parks column save endangered species
Sometimes, to change your perspective on an issue, you need a well-known figure to take center stage in the movement.
In the past, the bald eagle was a prime example of this type of figure. The populations of our national bird were in sharp decline, in large part due to the overuse of a chemical called DDT. The bald eagle wasn’t the only wild animal affected by this chemical (there were plenty of them), but it is probably one of the most recognizable birds in the United States.
After World War II, DDT was in high demand and was used to kill insects that many considered to be pests. Our older generation probably remembers being sprayed with DDT when it was used to help control mosquito populations.
The scientist who discovered that DDT could be used as an insecticide received the Nobel Prize. He received the award because of the number of lives theoretically saved by DDT through the control of diseases mainly transmitted by mosquitoes.
But, more and more evidence was starting to show that this chemical in the environment was adversely affecting many wildlife and possibly causing disease in humans.
There was a lot of money invested in this chemical, so its ban was going to be heavily challenged. Plus, it was used extensively for pest control, probably saving thousands of acres of crops and keeping insect-borne diseases to a minimum.
Long story short, the chemical’s use was banned in the early 1970s. Bald eagle populations have skyrocketed ever since, ultimately leading to its removal from the endangered species list in 2007. .
The reason I’m sharing this example is that we currently have a lot of small invertebrate populations going under the radar. It’s safe to say that most of us consider insects to be pests. I cannot stress enough how important they are to our existence and the existence of many well-known wildlife species. These populations are in decline largely due to habitat loss and overuse of herbicides and insecticides.
The Dakota Skipper (Threatened) and the Poweshiek Skipper (Endangered) are a few common species in the area that have recently gone unnoticed on the endangered list. Both butterflies are small and uncolored. Unfortunately, many species like this go unnoticed because they are not the bald eagle of the insect world.
So what happens when the insect world’s bald eagle begins to see its population decline?
The monarch butterfly is one of the best-known insects in North America. According to the US Fish & Wildlife Services website, “In December 2020, after a thorough assessment of the monarch’s condition, we determined that listing the monarch under the Endangered Species Act was warranted. but excluded for the moment by more priority registration actions.
Thus, the populations of the monarch become extremely low. The reason for their decline is the same for most insects. Habitat loss and overuse of herbicides and insecticides.
People will notice and take note of the decline of the monarch. Changes in how we operate today will likely need to happen to save this iconic species. This can be difficult for all of us for the same reasons as banning DDT.
Education and habitat provision are two major ways to help halt these declines. We have lost touch with the outside world. When we don’t like something external, our first reaction is to get rid of it in the easiest way possible. Instead of reaching for the spray bottle or lifting our foot to crush something, maybe we need to ask ourselves a few questions. What is that? Why is it here? What role does it play in our local ecosystem? If it is a pest, what are my control options and how will it affect other species?
Herbicides and pesticides are generally not specific to a species. When spraying you might be trying to get rid of a problem and accidentally get rid of something that was handling the problem. There is a time and place for chemicals to control pests. Make sure you know what the chemical is for, the right weather conditions, the right time for better control, and focus the application on the problem area instead of just spraying the entire area.
Much of the declining wildlife populations in our region have developed in a diverse grassland environment. One thing we struggle to provide in our current landscape is diversity. We still have native grasslands there. Conditions vary from pristine to degraded. Often, changes in management can bring degraded grasslands to a more diverse state.
It is therefore important to conserve native grasslands, as it is almost impossible to reproduce them. I haven’t seen a reconstruction come close to the diversity of a well-managed prairie.
Take the monarch for example. The monarch larva feeds strictly on milkweed. So if we are trying to save the monarch it would make sense to plant a huge pile of milkweed. Problem solved! The monarchs are saved!
If things were that simple. Milkweed typically blooms in midsummer for about two weeks. Monarchs need nectar sources during their spring and fall migration and for the two generations that occur during the summer.
This spring / summer / fall flowering is also very important for many other species. In short, we have a generalist and a specialist. The more variety we can put into an area, the more diverse a group of bugs will be present. This will attract other species of wildlife that need these insects to convert plant material into a source of protein for them.
We can add diversity to many different places. Plant more native flowers and herbs in your garden. Allow diversity to occur in grassy areas. Last summer I was driving past a spot that mowed around a bunch of individual milkweed plants and it was good to see. Plant more green space in towns with native wildflowers. Many of these spaces are not used by people and are just mowed to maintain the grass.
We don’t need to change our entire lives and the way we operate to start making a difference to our wild neighbors. If we all did something small it would go a long way.
Remember, let’s educate ourselves, be careful with the use of pesticides and herbicides, and grow native plants!
Owen McElroy is a resource biologist in the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks.