Thoughts at sunset
Wisconsin was very different before the arrival of the first Africans and Europeans late in the 17th century. Human activity then had affected the state very little, and its forests and prairies appeared much as they had for many thousands of years. Its streams ran clear, and plants and animals, birds and fishes were present in great profusion and diversity.
The Native American, for the most part, lived in a state of balance with his environment, utilizing the annual yield which nature provided without damage to the basic resources. Almost nowhere within the Wisconsin country was there pressure placed upon natural resources which caused species of plants or animals to become extinct or endangered.
This was soon to change. The stage was set, then, when southern Wisconsin was first explored in 1683, for the rapid development of a great inland empire of farms and factories, railroads and highways, and all the material developments of a complex civilization.
The forests of the north fell as rapidly as the technology of the time permitted. The verdant prairies were turned. Towns and cities appeared, and extensive railroad and highway networks linked communities together in a way that fostered growth.
Swamps and wetlands were drained and community waste disposal and industry changed aquatic resources still further. With the growth of industry, the air became darkened and polluted, and great quantities of minerals were taken from the ground.
The changes, all undertaken with the best intentions, and most contributing mightily to human progress, had a profound impact on the numerous species of plants and wildlife formerly abundant in Wisconsin.
Many animal species found the changed environment totally inhospitable. The impact on plant species often was less dramatic, but alterations in the numbers and variety of even the smallest plants and creatures went rapidly forward.
In the course of three centuries man moved from being simply another actor on a broad environmental stage, to the position of master and guardian of the entire environment, often with the power of life and death over its other inhabitants. In that position we find ourselves today, and we find also that we must face the fact that many species in the years immediately ahead either will decline and perhaps disappear, or maintain their numbers and even prosper or reappear, depending upon the care and attention we give the natural world around us.
We stand today at an environmental crossroads, facing great danger of the further extinction of many species. But we have the potential for preventing further loss and even for restoring many endangered species to numbers which will guarantee their continuation.
Some persons question the importance of preventing the extinction of particular species of wildlife and plants. Some species appear to have little value to us. Yet a form of life of little apparent importance may actually contain a chemical component or genetic formula which could be of great value to us in medicine, in agriculture, and in many other ways.
We must always remember that human beings are only parts of a great “web of life” that includes all living things, no matter how small and unimportant they seem to be. Once that web of life is broken by the extinction of any of its parts, the total structure is weakened, and if a sufficient number of extinctions occur, might itself collapse, leaving mankind the master of all, and ultimately, the master of nothing.
We attempt to protect endangered species in many ways. The law can require that public action, as in the building of a highway or lake, be accomplished only if endangered species are not further jeopardized. Beyond limits on public action, there is great need for private restraint and for individual concern for endangered species in all that we do.
The responsibility of the next generation in regard to endangered and threatened species is very great, for it will hold the power of life or death over many forms of life that now exist. It is the next generation and those that will follow that will be the chief beneficiaries or the losers, depending upon the success of our concern for the species which now are threatened and endangered. With proper care and attention to the world around us, we can exist in harmony with all other forms of life, and, as we do, we will benefit enormously from maintaining the web of life in all its richness and complexity.
Peter Dring is a retired nature biologist and phenologist who lives in the Land ‘O Lakes area. Questions or comments for Dring can be sent to [email protected].