What does it mean to save a species, and how do we choose which ones to restore?

There are probably few REVITALIZATION readers who didn’t see the myriad news stories about a mourning orca mother who carried her dead calf around for 17 days this summer.

That story helped bring attention to the crisis facing the genetically-unique southern resident killer whale population. of which there are now only about 60 or 70 left. The orcas are starving, as dams, overfishing and agricultural pollution have wipe out most of the Chinook salmon the orcas rely upon for food.

The southern resident killer whales (SRKW) represent the smallest of four resident communities within the Northeastern portion of the North American Pacific Ocean. It is the only killer whale population listed under the Endangered Species Act by the National Marine Fisheries Service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Many efforts, some quite expensive, are underway to try to resolve this crisis, but many folks are wondering at what point we should just let a species disappear.

Eric Taylor, professor of zoology at the University of British Columbia says we must be clear on how we define “saving” a species. “To save a species means to restore that species to its original range … or at least to a level where the animal can persist without undue human intervention like captive breeding or penning them.”

There are 101 species at risk of extinction within the Fraser River estuary, from southern resident killer whales to several species of salmon to migratory birds.

It’s also home to millions of people and valuable industries. But one of the major industries is nature tourism. “The income generated from having southern resident killer whales and having a whale-watching industry in this region is worth around $70 million a year,” says conservation scientist Tara Martin.

Spending vast sums on “charismatic mega-vertebrates” can mean no money available to save dozens of smaller, possibly more ecologically important species—like amphibians and insect pollinators—that might be less visually or emotionally appealing to humans.

When I (Storm Cunningham) was a medic with the Army’s 7th Special Forces Group, we were taught the practice of triage. It’s used in situations where the number of casualties overwhelm the medical resources available. Triage consists of separating the wounded into three categories:

  1. Those who will die if not treated immediately;
  2. Those who can wait to be treated; and
  3. Those who will die no matter what is done, or when it’s done.

Group #1 is treated first. Group #2 is treated second. Group #3 is treated only after the other two groups are taken are of. Group #3 doesn’t even get morphine to ease their suffering if supplies are low, and it’s needed by Groups 1 and 2.

Needless to say, triage is far easier to describe than it is to practice. The decisions are agonizing.

Those same sorts of decisions are now having to be made today, thanks in large part to short-sighted and/or corrupt politicians. The current U.S. administration is actively working to weaken the Endangered Species Act, one of the most successful American policy initiatives in the country’s history. More species triage is no doubt on the way.

Photo author unknown.

Listen to 54-minute CBC Radio program from which these quotes derived.

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