Watershed Notes: Conserve The Important, Common Animals Too

A big brown bat, which is capable of controlling immense numbers of insects, was captured and released safely from a home in Falconer last summer. Photo by Melanie Smith

Throughout the history of life on planet Earth, species have come and gone.

There have been several mass extinction events, where large percentages of the planet’s life was wiped out. The earliest such event on record occurred around 439 million years ago and was dubbed the Silurian Extinction when approximately 86% of life on the planet was lost. The worst mass extinction event is the Permian-Triassic Extinction, when 96% of species were lost.

We are currently in what has been dubbed the Anthropocene Extinction, the highest rate of extinction events in the last 65 million years. Extinctions are natural events and normally take place at one to five species annually. Right now, dozens of species are being lost daily, an extinction rate that is 1,000 to 10,000 times what takes place naturally.

At this pace, between one-third and one-half of the world’s species could go extinct by mid-century!

Recognizing the importance of protecting the millions of incredible organisms that humans share the planet with, the United States passed the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1973. This groundbreaking legislation allowed for an established regulatory framework that would identify, protect and promote the health of species at risk of extinction or species that may soon become at risk of extinction. While at times controversial, this legislation has aided numerous species and prevented their extinction.

Protecting species that may be lost to extinction, especially those that are under pressure from human activities, is extremely important. That being said, we cannot forget about the many other species that surround us.

Common species get almost no legal protections and are an afterthought in environmental impact assessments. Development projects brush aside impacts to any organism that is not listed as threatened or endangered under the ESA or that are protected at the state level.

However, common species are the most widespread and, therefore, provide the heftiest “ecosystem services.” In other words, common species do the most work. Since they provide the most benefits to wild ecosystems and inject substantial economic benefits into human coffers, they are just as deserving of protection when considering actions or projects that stand to impact them.

Anyone who knows me knows of my obsession with bats, so forgive a seeming digression into the world of bats — I am merely speaking to what I know best.

To make my case, I will use one of the most common bat species in the United States, the big brown bat (Eptesicus fuscus).

While other bat species have declined in number from diseases such as White-nose Syndrome or have been decimated by the impacts of wind energy, the big brown bat has thrived. Because they are fairly ubiquitous, they are one of those species that is effectively unprotected by any conservation regulation.

They are, however, extremely important to the ecosystems they inhabit, as well as human health and economies.

A 2001 study reviewed the diet and number of insects that a colony of 150 big brown bats would consume in a single season.

The results were startling! Hundreds of thousands of adult insects were eaten, and more than 33,000,000 rootworms were prevented from reaching adulthood through the consumption of pregnant female insects. B

roken down on a per bat basis, each bat in this small colony controlled or suppressed more than 225,000 insects — in just one summer! All of these insects were agricultural pests that damaged yields from corn, soy, cotton, potatoes, apples, cucumbers and other crops. Big browns also eat mosquitoes, which can reduce the extent of disease transmission such as West Nile Virus and other mosquito-borne pathogens.

Big brown bats are one of the most common bat species on the landscape and have immense positive impacts to wild ecosystems and human economies – yet they are unprotected. This is just one example among many. We know relatively little about our closest neighbors, and this goes for plants as well as animals.

There are likely important connections for many species that get overlooked as we focus on protecting species in decline.

One of the main tenets of conservation biology is that biodiversity (the variety of species in a given area) has intrinsic value, that a species is important simply because it exists. We should value all of the life around us — and protect it — not just because a given species has become rare or at risk of extinction, but because it has survived throughout evolutionary time against all odds and continues to persist.

Essentially, every species (even pesky and annoying mosquitoes) is important in the greater context and at least warrants consideration, if not legal protection.

We ignore the complex web of life at our own peril.

The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy is a local not-for-profit organization dedicated to preserving and enhancing the water quality, scenic beauty and ecological health of the lakes, streams, wetlands and watersheds of the Chautauqua region. For more information, call 716-664-2166 or visit www.chautauquawatershed.org or www.facebook.com/chautauquawatershed.