For the past six years, I’ve been a volunteer medic on our local ambulance service. In each ambulance, we keep a stack of 4-by-8-inch cards. I’ve treated victims of everything from stomach flu to mine cave-ins, and I’ve never had occasion to use those tags. I hope I never do.
Here’s how they work: Faced with a bus crash or an earthquake
— an accident that creates more victims than you can tend to
at once — your job is to quickly survey the patients. Then,
you assign each one a color-coded card, which has perforated color
strips across the bottom. A patient with a green card is injured,
but not seriously. A yellow card indicates serious but not
life-threatening injuries, while a red card means the patient has
life-threatening injuries in need of immediate attention. Finally,
a black card indicates that a patient is dead — or about to
This triage system, pioneered during the Korean War,
is designed to give the greatest number of people their best shot
at survival. In a situation where resources are limited, it’s
a harsh but necessary solution. But it puts the medic in a horrible
position: You have to decide who is likely to live or die.
According to some people, we’re in just such a
situation with the West’s wildlife. Rob Roy Ramey, the
Colorado scientist who plays one of the starring roles in this
issue’s cover story, says that in a world where conservation
resources are limited, "We have to do triage." We have to choose
which habitat to protect and which wildlife to restore — and
we have to decide which ones to let die.
To some extent,
we’ve been doing this for a long time. Conservation groups
have to pick their battles wisely, or risk losing them all. Land
trusts have to be strategic about where conservation easements will
do the most good. State and federal wildlife agencies make tough
decisions every day about where they’ll spend their limited
time and money. But are conditions now so dire that we need to
abandon certain species (or subspecies, such as the Preble’s
meadow jumping mouse, the subject of this story) entirely because
our attention is needed elsewhere? I’d like to think not.
Of all of the public-land management agencies that have
been pinched for money in recent years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service has perhaps been squeezed the hardest. Last year, the
agency received just $69 million for endangered species recovery.
Compare that to the $4.8 billion Congress appropriated for national
highways, or the $1.3 billion it spent on early reading programs,
or the $880 million allotted for nuclear waste disposal.
We’re a wealthy society. Surely we can dig a little more
change out of the couch for wildlife.
It also seems to me
that we’re smart enough to accommodate a few more people in
the West and still preserve wildlife habitat. We don’t have
to wreck Colorado’s economy to protect a few thousand acres
for the Preble’s mouse.
Then again, maybe
we’ve decided, as a people, that we’re only willing to
stretch so far for other creatures. If so, we’re playing God
with the West. The outcome, even if we succeed in saving a few
chosen species, is sure to be heart-breaking.