Voyaging Back From an Age of Extinction

Steller’s sea cow was the first to disappear after a voyage of discovery accelerated a wave of extinction in North America. The tiny palila bird was the first to benefit from Earthjustice’s use of a law passed to end the extinctions.

Steller sea lions.
The western stock of Steller sea lions has declined by almost ninety percent from their historic levels. (Vladimir Burkanov / NOAA)

Six long weeks in the summer of 1741 have passed without sight of land. Signs, yes—but Captain Vitus Bering and the St. Peter’s Russian crew scorn the pleadings of naturalist Georg Steller, who reads seabirds and seaweed like a map. They are seamen, though their own maps have failed, and Steller is not. Finally, land emerges above the clouds, and for the first time Europeans lay eyes on a land of unrivaled beauty and wonder. Alaska.

The discovery leads to more discovery as Steller documents numerous plants and animals previously unknown to European science; some of which will bear his name. The honor, though, is all Steller’s. Two of his discoveries, including the Steller’s sea cow—a relative of today’s endangered Florida manatee—are now extinct, and one, the Steller sea lion, clings to life. Like most threatened and endangered species, they are victims of habitat destruction and greed, an ancient pairing that when partnered with industrial development brought about a human-caused age of extinction.

In the centuries since Steller’s journey, humans have been extinguishing species on every continent and in every ocean with awful efficiency, shaking nature’s delicate balance to its core. In that time, before our very eyes, hundreds of plants, birds, mammals and fish disappeared forever; but it wasn’t until just a few decades ago that an ethos of preservation finally took hold, leading to what, arguably, is a species’ best friend.

The Endangered Species Act of 1973 became law; and Earthjustice, born in that same era, had one of its first real weapons in the fight to restore balance to nature.

This pioneering work began in 1976 with Earthjustice attorney Mike Sherwood and his efforts to protect the endangered Hawaiian palila. Since then, Earthjustice attorneys have wielded the ESA to great effect—safeguarding hundreds of plant and animal species.

These efforts include one species very close to Steller—his namesake sea lion, which has declined by more than 80 percent because of industrial fishing that annually removes billions of pounds of fish—the food crucial for the mammal’s survival. Just a few months ago, Earthjustice legal efforts helped win a court verdict that keeps ESA protections for this sea lion.

Earthjustice also is defending that close cousin of the Steller’s sea cow, Florida manatees, an endangered species at death’s door due in large part to sewage, manure and fertilizer runoff that chokes local waters with toxic algae. Record numbers of these gentle creatures are already dead in 2013.

In very sharp contrast, far to the north amid the high plains, valleys and peaks of the Rocky Mountains, are some bold and even fierce beneficiaries of Earthjustice work linked to the Endangered Species Act—none more symbolic than the gray wolf. The ESA has restored the gray wolf to Yellowstone and, in doing so, restored ecosystem balance lost when the wolf was exterminated in the 1920s. But be forewarned; while the wolf is safe within Yellowstone, its presence right outside the park, where protections have been lifted in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, is in jeopardy; 550 wolves were killed in the 2012 season. And following one may be far worse if the federal government decides to remove ESA protections in the rest of the lower 48 states.

Keeping wolves howling and manatees swimming and palilas flying may not be as hard in the future—it could be much harder as the effects of climate change accumulate in our ecosystems.

Climate scientist James Hansen warned that “if global warming approaches 3°C by the end of the century, it is estimated that 21 to 52 percent of the species on Earth will be committed to extinction.” Climate change driven by fossil fuel burning has emerged as the greatest of all threats to life on our planet.

How do we preserve life in the face of such danger? For Earthjustice, the answer lies in ending our use of fossil fuels such as coal and oil and replacing them with clean energy. But it also involves building resilience to climate change, which means protecting ecosystems so that species within are able to adapt to the changes that are coming. This is urgent work because some impacts—melting icecaps, hotter temperatures and drought, to name just a few—are already here.

The Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the planet, yielding this ominous development: It’s becoming easier to search for oil. For years, Earthjustice has litigated to keep oil companies out of the region in part because drilling—not to mention an oil spill—would harm endangered marine mammals such as the bowhead whale, an argument reinforced by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The Arctic isn’t the only ecosystem shaken out of balance by climate change. Back in the northern Rockies, for example, high-altitude whitebark pine forests stand dead due to beetle infestations brought on by warmer winters. This is bad news for the grizzly bear, whose diet relies on the whitebark pine seed. Farther west, increasingly dry conditions magnify the damage already wrought by dams and diversions on rivers—which further jeopardizes the survival of important salmon runs. Through Earthjustice efforts, many of these salmon runs were listed under the ESA in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and continue to be aggressively defended today.

Despite these varied and widespread threats to wildlife and the planet, there’s reason to remain optimistic—Steller’s journey offers a clue why. A short time after discovering Alaska, Captain Bering and the crew are suffering relentlessly from scurvy. Steller, relying on indigenous wisdom, prescribes fresh water and specific plants to cure them, but the captain dogmatically refuses and dies, along with many of his crew. A few who eventually accept Steller’s learned wisdom survive to tell the tale.

We are in something of a Stellerian moment. Faced with massive loss—brought on by destructive actions that ignore how nature works—we find ourselves needing something better than the broken maps that got us here. Something like a new ethos that embraces natural balance on a global scale. It doesn’t seem so impossible when we look back at what an ethos change brought about just 40 years ago.

Written by Sam Edmondson. First published in the Winter 2013 issue of the Earthjustice Quarterly Magazine.