© Reuters. PHOTO: A Venus flytrap seen at the “Dejate Atrapar” (Let Yourself Get Caught) exhibition of carnivorous plants, in Bogota, Colombia July 19, 2018. REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez
By Brad Brooks
(Reuters) – A leading conservation research group found that 40% of animals and 34% of plants in the United States are at risk of extinction, while 41% of ecosystems face collapse.
Everything from crabs and cacti to freshwater mussels and iconic American species like the Venus flytrap are at risk of extinction, a report released Monday found.
NatureServe, which analyzes data from its network of more than 1,000 scientists across the United States and Canada, said the report is the most comprehensive yet, synthesizing five decades’ worth of its own information on animal, plant and ecosystem health.
Importantly, the report points to areas in the United States where land is unprotected and where animals and plants face the greatest threats.
Sean O’Brien, president of NatureServe, said the report’s findings are “frightening” and he hopes it will help lawmakers understand the urgency of passing protections, such as the American Wildlife Recovery Act that stalled in Congress last year.
“If we want to maintain the wealth of biodiversity we currently enjoy, we need to target the places where biodiversity is most threatened,” O’Brien said. “This report allows us to do that.”
U.S. Rep. Don Beyer, a Democrat who proposed legislation to create a wildlife corridor system to restore endangered fish, wildlife and plant populations, said NatureServe’s work will be critical in helping agencies identify which areas to prioritize and where to establish migration routes.
“The data released by NatureServe is a grim, sobering sign of the very real problems facing our wildlife and ecosystems,” Beyer told Reuters. “I am grateful for their efforts, which will give a boost to efforts to protect biological diversity.”
Among the endangered species are icons like the carnivorous Venus flytrap, found in the wild only in a few counties in North and South Carolina.
Almost half of all cactus species are threatened with extinction, while 200 tree species, including the maple oak found in Arkansas, are also at risk of extinction. Among ecosystems, America’s expansive temperate and boreal grasslands are among the most threatened, with more than half of the 78 grassland types at risk of area-wide collapse.
Threats to plants, animals and ecosystems are diverse, the report found, but include “habitat degradation and land conversion, invasive species, river damming and pollution, and climate change.”
California, Texas and the southeastern United States are where the highest percentages of plants, animals and ecosystems are threatened, the report found.
These areas are both the richest in terms of biodiversity in the country, but also where population growth has boomed in recent decades and where human encroachment on nature has been most acute, said Wesley Knapp, chief botanist at NatureServe.
Knapp highlighted the threats facing plants, which typically receive less conservation funding than animals. There are nearly 1,250 plants in NatureServe’s “critically endangered” category, the last stage before extinction, meaning conservationists must decide where to spend scarce resources even among the most vulnerable species to prevent extinction.
“Which means a lot of plants won’t get conservation attention. We’re almost in triage mode trying to keep our natural systems in place,” Knapp said.
‘SAVINGS ACCOUNT IN NATURE’
Vivian Negron-Ortiz, president of the Botanical Society of America and a botanist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who was not involved in the NatureServe report, said there is still much that scientists do not know and have yet to discover about biodiversity in the United States, and that data from NatureServe helped shed light on that darkness.
More than anything, she sees the new data as a call to action.
“This report shows the need for the public to help prevent the disappearance of many of our plant species,” she said. “The public can help by finding and engaging local organizations that are actively working to protect wild places and preserve rare species.”
John Kanter, a senior wildlife biologist at the National Wildlife Federation, said the data in the report, which he was not involved in, is critical to guiding state and regional officials in creating impactful State Wildlife Action Plans (SWAPs). , which they must do every 10 years to receive federal funds to protect vulnerable species.
Currently, $50 million in federal funding is distributed among all states to implement their SWAPs. The American Wildlife Recovery Act, which congressional sponsors say will soon be reintroduced, would increase that to $1.4 billion, which would have a major impact on the state’s ability to protect animals and ecosystems, Kanter said, and the NatureServe report it can serve as a guide for officials to best spend their money.
“Our biodiversity and its conservation is like a ‘natural savings account,’ and if we don’t have this kind of accounting of what’s out there and what it’s like, and what the threats are, there’s no way to prioritize action,” Kanter said. “This new report is critical to that.”
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