The desert tortoise is one of several threatened and endangered species that call Lake Mead NRA home.
Many people love to see wildlife, whether it is flowers in a nearby field or bighorn sheep clambering over a rocky cliff. But it’s becoming harder and harder for plants and animals to thrive in the wild – the United Nations Environment Programme estimates that as many as 200 species of Earth’s plants and animals disappear every day. Locally, several threatened and endangered species call Lake Mead National Recreation Area home, like the razorback sucker and desert tortoise. While large scale efforts are underway to protect these species, it’s only natural to ask why we should spend money and a great deal of time to protect them at all.
The easiest answer is that many species are important to keep around because they are critical, either to us or in the ecosystem where they live. For instance, without endangered pollinators like bats and butterflies, we might have to live without some of our favorite foods. And if endangered mangrove trees disappeared, we’d also lose the thousands of other species that rely on them for food and shelter.
Furthermore, at the rate that species are currently disappearing, we may not even discover what’s at stake before it’s gone. For example, more than half of the 150 most commonly-prescribed drugs in the United States are made from chemical compounds isolated from nature; a cure for cancer may already exist in the leaf on a desert plant or in a caterpillar’s body, but the species could disappear forever before we even know it’s there.
But for many other species, the rationale for conservation isn’t so clear. Native fish in the Colorado River, like the razorback sucker, aren’t economically important to humans, and they aren’t critical links in their food web or even vital species in the Colorado River ecosystem. But this doesn’t mean they’re worthless. Razorback suckers live nowhere else on Earth, and they are an essential part of what makes the Colorado River a vibrant, unique place. If native fish were to disappear, the only fish that would inhabit this ecosystem will be the same carp, bass, and catfish that inhabit thousands of other waterways around the globe. Saving native species helps us to preserve diversity and uniqueness everywhere on Earth.
For better or worse, we humans have a tremendous influence on nearly all the ecosystems and habitats worldwide, but we also have a unique opportunity to preserve and protect the planet and the species with which we coexist. We’ll never be able to leave nature completely alone; we’ll continue to build roads, plant crops and alter the natural landscape in order to survive and thrive. But we can do these things in a responsible and thoughtful way, protecting species like the razorback sucker which has quietly inhabited the Colorado River for nearly a million years – long before we came into the picture.