THESE DAYS, SCIENTISTS are saying we are living through the sixth mass extinction on Earth. Five mass extinctions have happened over the last half a billion years. The last mass extinction occurred 65.5 million years ago with the disappearance of the dinosaurs. Previous mass extinctions occurred courtesy of natural phenomenon such as asteroid strikes, volcanoes and changes in the climate. This current sixth mass extinction is unique because it is driven by the Earth’s exploding human population and their inexhaustible appetite for food, water and energy.
The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity states that the world’s ecosystems are at risk of “rapid degradation and collapse” unless “swift, radical and creative action” is taken. While extinction is a normal function of an evolutionary process in a natural system, the current accelerated rate of species decline will inevitably impact, threaten and endanger the quality of human life. All of which begs the question,
Mass extinction is a lot like the weather. Everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything. Well, maybe almost nobody. A team of dedicated scientists hopes to turn back the clock on extinction and bring back an iconic bird from the island of Mauritania in the Indian Ocean. Discovered by the Dutch in 1599, the dodo bird was hunted and eaten by the scurvy-ridden crews who probably hadn’t tasted fresh meat in months. Upon settling on the island, they turned loose the hogs, rats, cats, dogs and the rest of the European fellow travelers that ate the eggs and chicks of the dodos until they joined the ranks of other extinct species, the Great Auk, Eskimo curlew, passenger pigeon and the Stellar’s sea cow.
Colossal Biosciences, a company in Dallas, Texas, just announced last month that they are investing $225 million dollars to “de-extinct” the dodo. The company has previously announced plans to bring back an extinct Australian marsupial and the woolly mammoth through advances in genome editing, stem-cell biology and animal husbandry, which it should be noted, has so far failed to materialize.
No matter. We can think of no higher aim of science than to restore extinct creatures or even creatures that are about to go extinct. The most viable candidate for this de-extinction scenario would be our own Olympic Peninsula steelhead. While our steelhead are not extinct yet, decades of greed, abuse and mismanagement of this iconic species have it circling down the drain of total eradication.
This has resulted in two environmental groups, The Wild Fish Conservancy and The Conservation Angler, to petition the National Marine Fisheries Service to list Olympic Peninsula steelhead under the Endangered Species Act. Our steelhead would then join the list of 19 threatened populations of salmon and steelhead in the Pacific Northwest, where salmon are currently extinct in 40 percent of their historic range.
Managing the steelhead into endangered species status hasn’t been easy. Unlike the extinct 100-pound salmon of the Elwha River that spawned only once and died, the steelhead is capable of spawning multiple times. In addition, different races of the steelhead ran up our rivers all year long. This has made the steelhead much more difficult to eradicate, although we are making progress.
While habitat degradation has been blamed for the demise of our salmon and steelhead, that does not explain threatened and endangered species of fish inside the pristine habitat of Olympic National Park. We hope someone is studying the problem. Perhaps someday, in a more enlightened future era, scientists can de-extinct the steelhead with genome editing, stem-cell biology and millions of dollars.
I think it’s the very least we could do.