The outlook is particularly bleak for wildlife these days. According to scientists, poaching and habitat loss are so out of control. We are now entering Earth’s sixth mass extinction event. Animals big and small, from elephants and rhinos to frogs and bees, are all under assault.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is that people all across the Southeast are fighting to reverse this trend.
Take the Little Tennessee River, for example. Considered a crown jewel of Blue Ridge rivers, the Little Tennessee harbors a treasure trove of aquatic life: 100 species of fish, 10 species of mussels, and a dozen species of crayfish live beneath the surface. The basin is so rich, experts believe that in some stretches the Little Tennessee holds the same assemblage of fish found hundreds of years ago when European settlers first arrived.
To protect this treasure, government agencies, private companies and conservation groups formed the Little Tennessee Native Fish Conservation Partnership.
Through this coalition, groups are delivering “Fish in the Classroom” courses to local schools; leading “Shade Your Stream” workshops that allow community groups to restore riparian areas; and pushing for the removal of defunct dams. The partnership also works with the US Forest Service to expand its educational snorkeling program, which allows folks to witness first-hand the river’s underwater wonders.
Because of this work, the Little Tennessee River was designated as the country’s first Native Fish Conservation Area, in recognition of the river’s extraordinary conservation value. This designation should help protect the rare fish and human communities that depend on a healthy river.
Partnerships are also benefitting one of Appalachia’s most ancient wild species: the Eastern hellbender.
Reaching nearly two feet in length, the hellbender salamander has spent tens of millions of years hiding under the rocks of Appalachian streams, stealthily patrolling its underwater world in search of prey. It is a species that has truly stood the test of time—until now. Once spread throughout much of the Southeast, sedimentation and declining water quality have caused the hellbender to disappear throughout much of its range.
A team of public officials, nonprofits, and landowners are working to revegetate streambanks, install underwater nest boxes, and, when suitable, reintroduce captive-reared hellbenders — work that will eventually help the species recover throughout a portion of its range.
Other species are also rebounding. Thanks to a broad, collaborative effort, the Channel Islands fox enjoyed the fastest recovery of any mammal listed under the Endangered Species Act. In Florida, female panthers are returning to their original habitat. Sea turtle populations appear higher than they’ve been in decades. And gray wolves in the west continue to expand their range thanks to non-lethal coexistence measures.
In a world where bad news seems to prevail, these stories should give us comfort. People are working together to resolve the extinction crisis and some progress is being made. To be sure, it is an uphill battle and it will take time. But with so many warriors fighting for the wild world, there is hope.