By Melissa J. Panella
When I recently had the opportunity to ask a group of fifth-graders what it means when an animal is considered “endangered,” one student responded confidently, “It’s dangerous! It will bite you!” I smiled at the boy, shook my head, and let him know that was not the answer I had in mind. An endangered species is one that is at risk of being lost forever because of extinction.
May 15 is the 10th annual Endangered Species Day. In 2005, the Senate designated the third Friday in May as Endangered Species Day, a special time to recognize the plants and animals that contribute to the incredible biological diversity in our lands, waters and skies.
There are 27 federal and/or state endangered species in Nebraska. The state's threatened and endangered species are part of its natural heritage. The plants and animals that live here provide us with abundant ecosystem services.
Healthy plant communities along our waterways help prevent water pollution and provide shade and resources to fish. Above and beyond the provision of wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities, wetlands filter and clean our water and hold floodwaters.
Birds, butterflies, bees, and other insects contribute to the pollination of the fruits and vegetables we eat and the flowers that adorn our properties. Plants bring us invaluable disease-fighting medicines. Most people understand the importance of productive soil and clean water and air, but maintaining biodiversity is important in ways that we probably do not fully comprehend yet.
In Nebraska, many people are working each day to help prevent the need for listing threatened and endangered plants and animals. Individuals, agencies, organizations and landowners often collaborate to try to improve conditions so that a species can recover and be de-listed. Multiple in-state and multi-state projects are underway to benefit threatened and endangered species such as whooping crane, pallid sturgeon, North American river otter and Hayden’s blowout penstemon.
The swift fox is a small, endangered canine that runs, hunts and plays as it tries to survive in the shortgrass prairies of Nebraska. The foxes eat mice, insects and other small prey. We do not know how many of these little foxes are left or exactly where they live. The Nebraska Natural Legacy Project, State Wildlife Action Plan, is supporting the work of University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate student Lucía Corral, who is using camera traps to document where the swift foxes live and if they are able to compete with coyotes and larger red foxes for food, shelter and space.
Biologists are working with landowners to conserve grasslands that provide habitat for the swift fox and many other species. Wildlife biologists regularly work on prairies and other habitats to maintain them for wildlife while considering operations of producers. For example, invasive eastern red cedars limit the availability of quality grazing lands. Biologists provide technical and financial assistance to landowners to help remove the trees to restore grasslands for wildlife, and ranchers gain improved forage for their grazing livestock.
One of the greatest endangered species recovery stories is the increase in numbers of bald eagles. Because of actions taken under the Endangered Species Act and the banning of certain pesticides such as DDT, bald eagle populations recovered enough that they were removed from the endangered species list. In Nebraska alone, a record number of nests were documented in 2014.
The Endangered Species Act has been more than 99 percent successful in preventing extinctions. The few extinctions declared since its inception may have been of species that had already been lost.