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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • COMMUNICATIONS ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Position Title: Communications Associate Director Location: Flexible within the Western U.S., Durango, CO preferred Position reports to: Senior Communications Director The Conservation Lands Foundation (CLF)...
  • HISTORIC HOTEL & CAFE
    For Sale, 600k, Centennial Wyoming, 6 suites plus 2 bed, 2 bath apartment. www.themountainviewhotel.com Make this your home or buy a turn key hotel [email protected]
  • MAJOR GIFTS OFFICER
    High Country News, an award-winning news organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Major Gifts Officer to join our...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • VICE PRESIDENT, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION
    Basic Summary: The Vice President for Landscape Conservation is based in the Washington, D.C., headquarters and oversees Defenders' work to promote landscape-scale wildlife conservation, focusing...
  • BRISTOL BAY PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Seeking a program director responsible for developing and implementing all aspects of the Alaska Chapter's priority strategy for conservation in the Bristol Bay region of...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The National Bighorn Sheep Center is looking for an Executive Director to take us forward into the new decade with continued strong leadership and vision:...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, based in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a new Executive Director with a passion for rural communities, water, and working lands....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • LOG HOME IN THE GILA WILDERNESS
    Beautiful hand built log home in the heart of the Gila Wilderness on five acres. Please email for PDF of pictures and a full description.
  • CARETAKER
    2.0 acre homestead needing year-round caretaker in NE Oregon. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • SEEKING PROPERTY FOR BISON HERD
    Seeking additional properties for a herd of 1,000 AUM minimum. Interested in partnering with landowners looking to engage in commercial and/or conservation bison ranching. Location...
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.