How ignoring overpopulation has undermined the success of saving endangered species By Karen I. Shragg

“ It’s been a long time coming, it’s going to be a long time gone”

Crosby Still and Nash

During my 35 -year career as a naturalist I tried to teach empathy for the earth, its systems, flora and fauna. I often felt that the messages my students were getting from everywhere else countered that. From their religious affiliations they were getting the message that just about everything is more important than nature. My main dispute with organized religions is that they are promoting a human-centric narrative. People matter to the exclusion of all other species even though we depend on them for everything in our food supply and the sense of wildness in our hearts.

Through the media which has permeated all aspects of our lives, we also get a very anthropocentric viewpoint. The news is full of what happened to people. If there is a flood, we are told how many homes and lives were lost. If there is a fire, tornado or any other disaster the focus is the same. No one bothers to calculate the loss of wildlife and native plants, unless a bird is dripping in oil or found in some other gripping way that will bring in viewers. But species, who have been here longer than any of us, continue to disappear mostly in silence while the news cycle tells the same narrative, that people matter over everything else. Few are telling children that other species matter. No one is screaming about the loss of bees and butterflies except those in my corner of the world.

Now we hear in the mainstream media, which must mean that it is finally true, that a myriad of new species are being listed as extinct, including the ivory bill woodpecker. It is no surprise to me. I blame it on the fact that our conservation organizations and their members have not been able to find their spine on overpopulation’s role in the demise of the wildlife we pretend to love. Meanwhile we trample over wildlife with such abandon that some are now calling for housing the homeless in national park lands.

One cannot mourn the loss of these never to be seen again species without taking into account our incredible population growth over the last 100 years. I tease my dad that when he was born the world had a chance to reserve some of its resources for wildlife. But that was 6 billion people ago. 6 billion is hard to visualize but try this example on for size: 6 billion minutes is the equivalent of 11,415 years. That number represents very significant pressure leading to the demise of wildlife that cloth bags and plant-based diets cannot erase. Any wild animal with a large territory or a requirement for quiet so that they can stalk prey is out of luck. The footprint of our collective human enterprise ( H.E.) includes our ballooning numbers and our mostly unavoidable consumption. Our H.E. ( or one could call it S.H.E. for Shitty Human Enterprise to fit within today’s norms), stomps all over the chance for wildlife surviving in any sustainable population density. To provide for our food requirements alone, huge tracts of land are cleared. Land that was habitat for wildlife is disappears under the disks of combines as they convert acres of prairie into feed and feed lots.

It is true that wild animals go extinct as a part of the natural cycle of natural selection. It is often argued by those invested in the world of development, that 99% of all species ever to live on earth are now extinct and they accomplished this without the aid of modern humans. True enough, but that does not let us off the hook for the wildlife annihilation now taking place on the planet. We are experiencing the sixth mass extinction, a rapid increase in extinctions brought about by habitat loss and climate instability, the result of too many people consuming and polluting at rates the biosphere cannot handle. From the pollution of our fossil fuel usage to gobbling up their habitats, our numbers matter.

Phrases like “Loss of habitat”, or “Human Activity” are the euphemisms used to describe why animals become endangered. “Degraded habitats” “Invasive species introduction” and “Development” are others which are all inextricably tied to the engine of this train that needs to be named so it can be blamed. Overpopulation is behind it all. Too many people consuming limited natural resources which if stretched due to technical advances only leads to more people. If I were a betting person, I would put my money on challenging anyone to find a sign at a zoo or wildlife refuge that uses the word ‘overpopulation’ as the reason why these amazing animals are now only serving as spectacles and not enjoying their lives in the wild.

Just look at any graph of population growth and species loss and they mimic each other. These hockey stick curves go up and up together in destructive unison illustrating a simple but profound truth, the growth of us equals the demise of wildlife. Avoiding this correlation in the conservation community has led us to what I am calling the “condom conundrum”. The fact that better use and easier access to birth control would help wildlife is clear and it is also clear that it has been avoided by the thousands of well-intended conservation groups promising a success that can never be theirs. We need to be seeing population numbers on the front covers of conservation magazines for the way in which our bloated presence is driving so many species to appear on the list of now extinct animals. I would start belonging to them again, if I were to read in between their glossy photos that we are adding 80 million to the H.E. each year globally and many countries are still growing due to immigration. Sir Peter Scott of the World Wildlife Fund wisely said in his later years, how he thought in retrospect that they would have saved more wildlife if they would have focused on birth control.

I know plenty of people who sincerely care about wildlife. Thanks to their efforts, the Bald eagle, the Peregrine falcon, Trumpeter swan, the Brown pelican and others have made impressive recoveries, but not without a lot of effort and expenditure. Overall, however, the rates of extinctions and the amount of native plants, vertebrates and invertebrates are disappearing faster than we can count. That’s why the time we are living in now is being referred to as the sixth mass extinction.

In my view we have gone about saving species in entirely the wrong way. It’s been very expensive to captive breed and reintroduce wildlife. Adding a specie to the endangered list comes about only when there are so few left researchers can hardly find enough genetic diversity in the remaining rare individuals without risking genetic trouble down the road. As we’ve experienced recently, conservation legislation is only as good as the current political party holding office. Buying up land to keep in conservation easements is another noble but very expensive strategy. We often wait too long to try and save species, and do it in the most costly of fashions. We employ environmental lawyers to sue developers and spend extraordinary efforts to battle those with more money and moxie to save landscapes. Beneath all of these noble efforts is the difficult story about how we have been focused on the wrong problem.

I loved to teach about the way the food pyramid, also called the food chain or web, works. With a myriad of games, hikes and lectures I demonstrated the relationship between plants as producers and the various tiers of animal consumers. The most important lesson was that the top of the pyramid needs to have the least number of consumers for it to function as dictated by evolution. In an oversimplified pyramid where grasshoppers eat plants and skunks eat grasshoppers to be followed by owls eating skunks, the owls must always be the least numerous. We are a part of this law of nature but have flipped the pyramid with our success as a specie. The collapse of wildlife which is also affecting our ability to live in this unbalanced world is knocking on our door demonstrating the horrific results of breaking nature’s laws.

We have not tried to save wildlife by doing what would have really worked, ratcheting down our numbers and recognizing which laws, policies and economic systems are surreptitiously working to help us grow when we need to be shrinking the entire human enterprise away from the edge of extinction of all life. We have been sold a bill of goods by over 11,000 NGO’s dedicating to global conservation efforts with combined assets of over 3.5 billion dollars. Oh, they are sincere enough, but they would have been much more successful had they partnered with population groups to focus on the multiple ways human numbers have needed to be curtailed with non-coercive but effective methods.

There are two parts to the “condom conundrum”. The first part is revealing that overpopulation and the access to birth control is connected to the survival of wildlife. The second part is that birth control advocacy alone will not solve local overpopulation issues by itself. Some countries, including and especially the US, have impressively lowered their fertility rates but their populations are still growing due to increases in immigration.

Professor Garret Hardin, wrote prophetically about how to go about solving how humans are overtaking the planet by using the analogy of potholes. Potholes are a global problem, but they must be solved locally. The same is true when it comes to saving our local species on the brink of extinction. We should try to save globally threatened species whenever we can, but we have the most power to save them in our own back yards. It’s sad that many US school children can identify endangered wildlife from other continents while being stumped by those in their own backyards. Young school children can easily identify gorillas and elephants but have a harder time with recognizing that bobcats, lynx and kangaroo rats live here.

Concerned about the species on the US endangered species list? Well there are over 1600 and sending money to the United Nations Family Planning Association (UNFPA) will not help them at all. UNFPA will send your hard earned dollars to where the Asian elephant lives, or the Mountain Gorilla, but not to where the desert Tortoise lives, within our borders. Spending money to halt population growth here in the US holds the most hope. Want to help save the Florida panther, the lesser prairie chicken, the monarch butterfly and so many other species suffering from overpopulation’s bulldozers? Make sure all wildlife lovers and the NGO’s they support get on board with overpopulation’s role in their demise. It is an issue which is screaming for attention right here in the USA where it can do the most good. Native habitats will not be adequately protected with cloth bags and address labels from US focused NGO’s who do not also work on US overpopulation for it is our growing numbers which signal the bulldozers of ‘progress’ to invade wildlife habitats to make way for condos and theme parks.

The beautiful red-headed woodpecker is threatened because of increased numbers in the US, now numbering 330 million, and what that has meant to the loss of pine savannas. The endangered Karner Blue Butterfly depends on wild blue lupine flowers which used to be found in the pine barrens, oak savannas and dunes of lakeshores before overpopulation turned them into cabins, freeways and strip malls. The Amargosa vole is endemic to the Mohave desert where it depends on rare desert wetland plants and raptors depend on it for food. But overpopulation has drained ground water and introduced invasive species have become its unnatural predators. All you will read about it an any Google search however is at best that ‘human activity’ is causing their demise. For those like me who may be geographically challenged, the Mohave desert is located in California south of Death Valley National Park. The endangerment of the Amargosa vole there is tied directly to the fact that California has added 20 million to its borders since the first Earth Day scolded us for not caring enough about the environment back in 1970.

The condom conundrum keeps us from addressing all causes of population growth because focusing only on birth control is not comprehensive enough to help wildlife. According to the Pew Research Center immigrants and their descendants are projected to account for 88% of US population growth through 2065. Until groups like the National Wildlife Federation, Defenders of Wildlife, The Wilderness Society and so many others I no longer feel I can support, address this reality, they will essentially be operating wildlife Ponzi schemes.

In the US we grow in our numbers when capitalism and its industries favor loose immigration laws which result in lower wages and high profits for CEO’S and their shareholders. Greed inspires immigration increases and we grow in numbers when rich and powerful industrialists use their wallets to sway politicians. If all goes as planned, they will then vote to keep immigration restrictions to a minimum. This way they can keep wages suppressed and unions from forming so their own portfolios can grow. See the new book “Back of the Hiring line A 200-year history of immigration surges, employer bias, and depression of Black wealth” for a comprehensive look at this history. (Roy Beck 2021). As Beck points out, restricting immigration, when it has happened over the years, improves the chances for employment and economic advancement for the deserving descendants of slavery. We are also growing our immigration numbers due to relaxed and ignored immigration policies already on the books. Those who work to strengthen them should be supported, in the name of improving all issues important to Americans. Just making employers follow the law and hire US citizens would help to curb US population growth and help save jobs for Americans especially those who have been shoved to the back of the hiring line. The Florida panther, the lesser prairie chicken, the monarch butterfly and so many other species suffering from overpopulation’s bulldozers will be thankful too.

When we focus solely on China, India, Nigeria and other nations with huge populations and their faster growth rates we are doing a disservice to the wildlife suffering here at home from our own overpopulation issues. Everything from worsening traffic to record breaking crowds at National parks is due to the overpopulation. We are experiencing the loss of these freedoms to move about as we wish and wildlife disappears for the same reason, we cannot continue to pretend that it doesn’t. For reference, we have gained an unsustainable 125 million people in the US since Earth Day 1970.

Without a focus on the wildlife consequences of US population growth by conservation groups, don’t expect to see the 41 species of endangered US Salamanders or the Northern Spotted Owl to be returning from the brink of extinction anytime soon.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store