Hmmm, what to do?

Friday, May 21st is Endangered Species Day, which to a wildlife photographer almost amounts to a challenge, and generally, a pretty tough one: get photos of at least one endangered species. Of course, they’re endangered because there aren’t many of them, and thus they’re hard to find, so it usually takes a special effort to locate any, a targeted expedition of sorts. Which leads to the issue that anyone doing so may be disturbing their habitat, and thus increasing the risk, however small the impact from one snooping person might be. It’s unlikely to get as out of hand as, like, people wanting to go to the Gal├ípagos, but the ethical question remains over whether the attempt should even be made, and benefits outweighing risks and all that.

On top of that, there’s the species that can be found in any given area, and for us here, it’s a short list: a couple of birds, several fish, three plants, and a handful of mussels. Oh, and a snake, the southern hognose (Heterodon simus,) one of the few that I’ve actually photographed before and one of the potentials on my list, even though technically it’s an ‘At Risk Species’ and not Endangered. I know exactly where I found that one, but I have suspicions that it’s not still hanging around at that road crossing after two decades…

Mussels are not even in consideration, mostly because I can’t tell one from another, and the fish are close behind, partially because I’d have to capture one to get any kind of decent images from an aquarium. But something like the Neuse river waterdog (Necturus lewisi) remains a possibility, being large enough, distinctive enough, and semi-close enough (maybe) to warrant the attempt. Perhaps the plant species, provided I can get enough details to distinguish them from their non-endangered brethren.

Bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) are no longer on the Endangered list, but remain critically protected, so at least we may see more pics of them (including real soon.) The red-cockaded woodpecker (Picoides borealis) would be a challenge, given the habitat, but perhaps easier than the waterdog.

But ignoring the photography angle, which really involves more ego-gratification than anything else, there’s the chief intention of the holiday, which is to raise awareness of the species and why they’re endangered, primarily habitat loss. Development, repurposing, and pollution are the leading culprits, all fostered by humans, the most impactful species that has likely ever walked the planet. Most of us arrived in this country (ancestrally, anyway) with the idea that it was all free land, do as we will, and eventually found that this attitude was detrimental in a large variety of ways, and we’re still discovering the ripple effects of this behavior. It’s easy to think, on the face of it, that losing a species of mussel wouldn’t mean jack shit to us, but an ecosystem depends on countless species and their own impacts and effects. Mussels are filter-feeders, capable of cleaning water sources from harmful particles and bacteria, but also (like so many species) indicators of how viable the water is in the first place. Their loss might seem trivial, but it could indicate that the water is getting pretty wretched, which is going to impact everything downstream, including those of us that use those rivers as a fresh water source. Not to mention the wetlands, which provide breeding areas for countless aquatic species, many of which we eat ourselves. And the impact on the plants in the wetlands may mean encroachment of salt-laden seawater further inland, through storm surges, which results in the loss of viable farmland and, yes, even housing developments. Nothing sits alone and separate from the ecosystem, including us, and willy-nilly changes to this can have huge impacts down the line, foreseen and unforeseen.

All too often, we think that it’s somebody else that’s creating the worst effects, which is usually correct, but the overall attitude towards environmentalism is a culture, which we can change at will. In a country that’s proud of the hours we work, that revels in the sports and outdoor accomplishments, that’s always ready to stand up for something important, we can be ridiculously lazy when it comes to simple things like recycling and being mindful of resources. How hard is it to dispose of things properly, and when did hard even become this thing that we couldn’t handle? I’m ranting, I know, but seriously, we’re pretty selective about the efforts we choose to put in, to no one’s benefit. And most of it is simply the attitudes we hold. Those aren’t even slightly difficult to change.

So maybe that’s the challenge for Friday, or any day: find those things that we can change, including how others see it all. Pics are fine, but progress is undoubtedly better.

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