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for people who care about the West

The precious common

 

Imagine a white burqa crossed with a beekeeper’s suit. At the end of one arm protrudes a pterodactyl-esque puppet head with a long bill, a blazing red pate and cheeks streaked a vivid black. But its golden eyes are flat and unmoving, like those of a specimen in a museum diorama.

If you’re a whooping crane chick raised in captivity at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Maryland, this is the costume worn by the human pretending to be your mom. Because your species numbered around 20 in 1941, scientists carefully selected your biological parents to avoid genetic problems. Once you hatch, your surrogate “crane” teaches you, by example, to eat crane kibble, and to swim in a pool and dash across the grass so that your legbones develop correctly. When you’re old enough, she teaches you to follow an ultralight aircraft on your first migratory flight to Florida’s Gulf Coast. She shapes you, in essence, to an approximation of wildness, hoping that you will one day mate with another whooper, and build a population that thrives without intervention in the world beyond Patuxent’s walls.

Over the past half-century, we’ve gone to great lengths to conserve rare species, with some success. There are now hundreds of whooping cranes, wolves and grizzlies have reclaimed the Northern Rockies, and certain salmon runs have increased. But today’s conservation challenges are infinitely vaster than anyone could have imagined when Congress passed the Endangered Species Act. We are driving Earth’s sixth mass extinction, radically changing habitat and the climate to which we are all adapted. Saving every struggling creature now will be impossible, particularly if it requires draconian measures. “Conservationists need new strategies,” writes contributing editor Cally Carswell in this issue’s cover story. And one of the most viable may involve looking beyond rare species to some of the much more common ones.

Ecologists at Northern Arizona University have built a strong case that genetic diversity within seemingly ordinary cottonwoods and piñon pines determines the biodiversity of the vast community of creatures that live in those trees’ canopies and on their bark. That means saving a lot of species at once may be as simple — and as complicated — as ensuring that the handful that form an ecosystem’s foundation have the necessary genetic resilience to weather the coming crises. Protecting, and perhaps even directly manipulating, their innate ability to adapt could give everything else a better shot at survival.

That‘s an unsettling vision of the future — like playing God, as one biologist observes. But it’s not all that different from what we already do with whooping cranes, working desperately and with an almost maternal devotion to ensure that this graceful bird, with its nearly 8-foot foot wingspan, inhabits our future as more than just a carefully maintained artifact from a vanishing era.