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
  • SEASONAL SAN JUAN RANGERS
    Seeking experienced crew members to patrol Colorado's most iconic mountain wilderness.
  • ENDANGERED SPECIES STAFF SCIENTIST
    The Center for Biological Diversity seeks a staff scientist to advocate for the conservation of endangered species. General position overview: The position will involve working...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY - ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH PROGRAM
    The Center for Biological Diversity - a national nonprofit organization dedicated to the protection of imperiled plants, animals and wild places - seeks a dynamic...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    The Center for Biological Diversity seeks a Staff Attorney to join our team of attorneys, scientists, campaigners who are working to protect America's public lands...
  • SOUTHWEST CONSERVATION ADVOCATE
    The Center for Biological Diversity seeks a Southwest Conservation Advocate to join our team of attorneys, scientists and campaigners who are working to protect America's...
  • OCEANS PROGRAM CAMPAIGNER
    The Center for Biological Diversity seeks an experienced campaigner for its oceans program. The aim of the position is to campaign for the protection of...
  • CLIMATE LAW INSTITUTE ATTORNEY
    The Center for Biological Diversity's Climate Law Institute is looking to add an attorney to its team and will consider applicants at both staff attorney...
  • FULL-TIME CAMPAIGN DIRECTOR
    The Center for Biological Diversity seeks a full-time Campaign Director in our Climate Law Institute to join our campaign for progressive, urgent government action to...
  • WESTERN WATER PROJECT MANAGER
    National Wildlife Federation is hiring NM-based position focused on riparian corridors, watershed health. Learn more and apply online: https://www.nwf.org/about-us/careers
  • ASSOCIATE PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Position Title: Associate Program Director Location: New Mexico; flexible in state Position reports to: Senior Program Director Position Closes: March 13, 2020 GENERAL DESCRIPTION: The...
  • DEAN, W. A. FRANKE COLLEGE OF FORESTRY AND CONSERVATION, UNIVERSITY OF MONTANA
    Dean, W. A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation, apply http://bit.ly/2548umjobs. AA/EEO/ADA/Veterans Preference Employer
  • GRAPHIC DESIGNER
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks a creative and driven graphic design professional to design high quality print and digital collateral. The Graphic Designer will bring...
  • STEWARDSHIP SPECIALIST
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks experienced person to manage its 133 conservation easements in south-central Colorado.
  • CAMPAIGN REPRESENTATIVE
    Sierra Club's Beyond Dirty Fuels Campaign is hiring an experienced campaigner to lead our work challenging the oil and fracked gas industry on the Gulf...
  • AG LANDS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Oregon Agricultural Trust (OAT) seeks passionate relationship builder experienced in coordinating agricultural conservation easement transactions.
  • REMOTE SITKA ALASKA FLOAT HOUSE VACATION RENTAL
    Vacation rental located in calm protected waters 8 miles from Sitka, AK via boat with opportunities to fish and view wildlife. Skiff rental also available.
  • FINANCE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) is hiring 4+ positions: Finance Director; Coms/Engagmnt Mngr; Dev/Engagmnt Dir; Americorps vol
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND ENGAGEMENT MANAGER
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) is hiring 4+ positions: Finance Director; Dev/Engagement Dir; Coms/Engagement Mngr; & Americorps volunteer
  • SEASONAL TRAIL CREW LEADERS
    Lead the nation's premier volunteer-based trail crew programs on the spectacular Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail. This is a great career-building opportunity for rising professionals....
  • ORGANIZING AND TRAINING COORDINATOR
    Is this your dream job? Are you looking to join a nationally recognized organizing network, live in a spectacular part of the West, and work...