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We're Not Doomed.

Posted by Peter Zahler, Vice President of Conservation Initiatives

When I was in fourth grade, I frequently sat on the curb of our little street in upstate New York and discussed environmental destruction and the end of the world with my best friend Dave. Admittedly this probably means I was not the most fun fourth grader on the planet to be around, but interestingly I went on to a long conservation career helping to save wildlife around the world, while my friend Dave went into marine conservation, diving with the Cousteau Society among other impressive career notes.

Great ambitions inspired by dreamy afternoon haunts. Photo by Sam Szapucki via Flickr
I’ve been reminded of our curbside apocalypse sessions lately because of the recent UN environmental reports, first on climate change and more recently on the estimated one million species under threat of extinction in the next few decades.

It’s a little hard not to be stunned by these reports into a sense of paralysis, if not despair. The threats are so huge that they literally boggle the mind – just imagining the number one million is hard enough, much less what it might mean to our planet to lose that many species in such a short period of time. As an ecologist by training I know how dramaticand unpredictableeven a single subtraction or addition can be to an ecosystem.

Earth (or at least a little taste of it) by Beth Scupham via Flickr
I honestly believe, however, that feeling paralyzed or hopeless is exactly the wrong response. These reports do not say we are all doomed. They do say we’re facing a crisis, but as with any crisis, whether it’s that your stove is on fire or you’re being attacked by killer bees or feral boars (stories for another time…), freezing up is not the answer. Action is.

I say we’re not doomed for two reasons. First, I thought we were doomed back in fourth gradeand guess what, we’re still here. The second reason is that while there are undeniably frightening trends happening right now, there are also many conservation successes that stand as examples that yes, if we act, we can make a real difference.

Just within the wildlife conservation programs run out of the Woodland Park Zoo, examples abound. The one-horned rhino of Asia was down to 200 or so animalsthey now number over 3,500 across India and Nepal. The northwestern pond turtle was similarly down to just around 150 or so in 1990; today, with our head-starting program, they are over 1,000 animals in the wild. Our captive breeding program has returned the silverspot butterfly from a few individuals at just one site to thousands of butterflies now released and thriving in five sites along the coast. 

Deception Falls. Photo by John Westrock via Flickr
Here in the Pacific Northwest, huge wild landscapes still exist. Within them species driven to local extinction in the last centurythe wolf and the wolverine as two iconic examplesare coming back on their own, rapidly repopulating the region. The fisher, a corgi-sized relative of the weasel and mink, has been reintroduced and appears to be thriving and spreading in the region. Even in our rapidly growing city of Seattle we are finding more and more wildlife. This includes relatively large predators such as coyotes and bobcats, in numbers great enough that we have ongoing research projects on them and are working with local communities to help people coexist with these wild species without conflict.

So what can you do to help? If you’re a fourth grader reading this you could commit to a life in wildlife conservation. I did, and I’ve never for a moment regretted it or felt I should do anything elsefor all of the struggles it has been an enormously enriching and fulfilling life. For most of the rest of us, of course, fourth grade was a while ago and we don’t have the luxury of choosing a career path from scratch.

What you can do, however, is take some of those actions you may have been putting off for some rainy day in the future. Right now you can commit to recycle, compost, drive less, bike more. Plant native species in your garden. Make your voice heard as an advocate for policies that will help create a sustainable future for every living creature. A quick phone call to your representative in D.C. asking them to address the climate crisis does make a difference. We already have some of the most progressive climate action legislation here in Washington – thank your state representatives, and tell them that you want more. That we need more. Talk to your local city council representatives and tell them the same.

Endangered silverspot butterfly above the rugged Oregon coast. Photo by Rachel/Woodland Park Zoo.
It is important when facing a crisis that you don’t feel alone, and the wonderful fact is that here in the Pacific Northwest you don’t have to feel that way. We have a vibrant region filled with caring people who are already making a difference. Join with your friends, your family, your community. Invite your neighbors on a hike to show them your favorite park or wild area, and introduce them to the wonders of our green spaces. Join a bike group, a community beach or park clean-up effort. Work with your local city government on their efforts to reduce your city’s carbon footprint and to protect your local green spaces and wildlife. There are also exciting citizen science and restoration projects across the region that are desperate to have your help.

Make a decision right now to take some of these actions. We can’t do it all, but we can make a difference. I know because I have seen and worked on amazing and heart-warming examples of how we’ve already made a differencefrom iconic species returning to their rightful place in the wild to wildlife and people adapting to living in harmony with each other. 

Come make a difference with us. 

Grey wolf at the Northern Trail. Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo.
Consider becoming a Conservation Partner, this $295 annual membership covers the entire family and makes a greater impact for wildlife. (Hey, you can even invite your childhood bestie you haven't seen in years and start those conversations again.)