December 9, 2022
Lindsay Rosa

Over the past 50 years, the natural world has experienced unprecedented rates of change with devastating implications. Today, approximately one million species are at risk of extinction globally, and integrally linked ecosystem services—from disease buffering to pollination—are at risk of loss. The direct drivers of biodiversity loss with the largest global impact are: changes in land and sea use; direct exploitation of organisms; climate change; pollution; and invasion of alien species. These drivers are largely a result of underlying societal values and behaviors. If left unaddressed, they are predicted to continue or increase their detrimental impact. Transformative action is needed to alleviate these threats.

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5 Drivers of Biodiveristy Loss

This week, I’m attending the United Nations Biodiversity Conference, the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP15), which comes on the heels of the COP27 meeting of the Convention on Climate Change. Scientists and policy makers typically treat biodiversity loss and climate change as two separate issues, but they are intimately entwined. Unfortunately, despite climate change being one of the biggest threats to biodiversity and our current way of life, little progress was made at COP27 to mitigate the threats that this crisis poses. Under business-as-usual scenarios, the planet is heading to a global average temperature increase of between 2.1°C to 2.9°C, with some regions, such as the Arctic, facing even higher increases. This guarantees a near future with continued rising sea levels and flooding, more frequent and powerful storms, droughts and heat waves, and species extinctions. 

Climate change is fundamentally changing the ecosystems that many endangered species live in, threatening their continued health and survival: melting ice is shrinking essential polar bear habitat, and warming waters are killing coral reefs, for example. Images of these iconic species bring attention to the fact that our world is warming. But there are many other changes underway that are impacting our already imperiled species, like changes in precipitation and water availability.

You wouldn’t expect to find an aquatic, water-dependent species living in one of the driest parts of the desert. But that is precisely where the Sonoyta mud turtle (Kinosternon sonoriense longifemorale) has made its home. In the U.S., this web-footed, freshwater turtle can only be found in Quitobaquito Springs, in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona. In 2020, the federal government designated critical habitat for the turtle, a small pond and its surroundings where a mere ~150 turtles are left.

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Quitobaquito Springs
NPS
Quitobaquito Springs is critical habitat for the Sonoyta mud turtle.

For a water dwelling species in a desert, droughts and heat waves are a major problem. The mud turtle isn’t the only species relying on local water sources—the Rio Sonoyta valley contains irrigated agricultural fields, using underground wells to draw away ground water to water crops. The nearby towns of Sonoyta (Mexico) and Lukeville (Arizona), also draw drinking water from the same source. These towns and wells could siphon away what little water the turtles have, and rising temperatures and drought frequency will only make this competition for water resources even more intense. To add to the turtles’ woes, their pond is just 100 yards from the U.S./ Mexico border, and it was one of the several species that was threatened by the new border wall touted by the Trump Administration. Construction of the border wall caused dust and soil to flow into local streams, and groundwater was pumped out to mix cement, leading to dangerously low water levels. President Biden halted further federal funding for border wall construction, but the environmental damage already caused by the wall’s construction has not been addressed.

The Sonoyta mud turtle is just one of hundreds of U.S. species that is threatened by climate change. Check out our Field Guide to Climate Change to learn more about some of the other species that are in danger of going extinct due to climate change and what Defenders is doing to help save them.

Establishing a National Biodiversity Strategy

The U.S. lacks a comprehensive and coordinated approach to tackling the five main drivers of the biodiversity crisis. Worldwide, 194 other countries have developed forms of a national biodiversity strategy. A national biodiversity strategy would address the extinction crisis by requiring more effective and coordinated use of laws and policies to protect biodiversity and reverse its decline, while reasserting the U.S.’ international leadership.

It’s time for America to lead—to demonstrate how we can live in harmony with nature and to respect our environment. We cannot think of a more important roadmap toward a sustainable future than a comprehensive national biodiversity strategy. It will help us prioritize and safeguard the natural resources that are critical to humanity’s survival.

The time to invest in our planet is now, before it’s too late.

What Can You Do?

There are numerous opportunities to take action on climate, most of which also benefit wildlife. Check out the Defenders Activist Hub and get involved!

Author(s)

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Lindsay Rosa headshot

Lindsay Rosa

Vice President of Conservation Research and Innovation
Dr. Lindsay Rosa oversees Defenders of Wildlife's Center for Conservation Innovation, where science, technology, and policy teams work together to find creative and pragmatic conservation solutions.
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