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Caring for our fellow creatures

On Dec. 21, the Johnson City Press published an article asserting meager legislative accomplishments by Congress in the session just completed. It reported as among the last acts before it “limped out of town,” that Congress honored “the 100th anniversary of the extinction of passenger pigeons.”
Through this act, Congress seemingly acknowledged its duty in “responsible conservation of our nation’s wildlife.” But through a rider slipped into the omnibus spending bill, it prohibited the Fish & Wildlife Service from putting in place protection measures to stave off extinction risk for two Western sage-grouse bird species, banning their listing under the Endangered Species Act.
It was on Christmas Day 20 years ago that a Johnson City Press article announced: “Listing protects mussels.” This concerned the Appalachian elktoe which, once widely distributed in the upper Nolichucky and Little Tennessee Rivers, had dwindled to a few scattered individuals by then. Its listing under the federal law allowed it not only to survive but increase its numbers again, as a filtering agent which also benefits human uses of river waters.
The threatened elktoe was the last species to be accorded protection then. The GOP having gained control of Congress in the 1994 midterm elections, it enacted a listing moratorium early the next year, lasting nearly 18 months.
For any of the nation’s plants or animals awaiting listing at the time, the moratorium meant increased possibility of extinction and decreased options of cost-effective recovery later on.
In 1973, Congress had voted nearly unanimously for passage of the ESA. President Nixon, signing it into law on Dec. 28, stated that this law protects “a heritage which we hold in trust to countless future generations of our fellow citizens. Their lives will be richer, and America will be more beautiful in the years ahead” through it.
A highly successful tool for conserving our biological heritage, the law has prevented extinction for more than 99 percent of the wildlife placed under its protection.
In 1947, at a monument to the passenger pigeon in a state park in Wisconsin, Aldo Leopold gave eloquent tribute to the fellow creature lost, but also to humans’ obligation and capacity for caring for God’s creation. “Commemorating the funeral of a species symbolizes our sorrow,” Leopold said. “We grieve because no living man will see again the on-rushing phalanx of victorious birds chasing the defeated winter from all the woods and prairies.”
For a species to mourn the death of another is a new sentiment, he added.
“The Cro-Magnon who slew the last mammoth thought only of steaks. The sportsman who shot the last pigeon thought only of his prowess. But we, who have lost our pigeons, mourn the loss. Had the funeral been ours, the pigeons would hardly have mourned us.”
Man’s capacity of kinship with fellow creatures, rather than his technology and bombs, Leopold thought, is what puts him “over the beasts.”
The Endangered Species law is the embodiment of this ethic of caring.
May the new Congress taking power in January honor it, too.