More than a million species are at risk of extinction globally, including hundreds in California. That's what the United Nations revealed on Monday.
“The rate of global change in nature during the past 50 years is unprecedented in human history,” the authors wrote in a summary of the report, which compiled of thousands of scientific papers.
In California, there are around 300 species at risk and 346 species in California, Nevada and Southern Oregon combined. A handful of plants and animals have already disappeared from the state, such as the Santa Barbara song sparrow and the the California subspecies of the Grizzly Bear.
“When we lose species, we potentially lose the function of ecosystems, and we make the world poorer and less interesting,” says Noah Greenwald with the Center for Biological Diversity. “People may not miss the Santa Barbara song sparrow or the Tecopa pupfish, but they were part of what makes California unique.”
About a dozen species are currently at risk of extinction, according to Dan Applebee, an environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“There's some species nobody's seen in decades,” Applebee said. “So, there may be additional extinctions. There’s a few species that we’ve gone so far as to capture them in the wild, breed them in captivity and then release to augment populations.”
The U.N. study, which will be fully released later this year, found that plant and animal life have decreased by 20 percent in most habitats. The authors blame human activity and climate change.
“Some of the stressors in the report, like habitat loss and conversion, are very common themes for the species we list and it’s one of the most common stressors,” said Michael Long, an endangered species chief with U.S. Fish and Wildlife.
The report isn’t all bad news, though. It reminds the world that it’s not too late to “make a difference, but only if we start now at every level from local to global,” said Robert Watson, chairman of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.
“Through ‘transformative change,’ nature can still be conserved, restored and used sustainably — this is also key to meeting most other global goals. By transformative change, we mean a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values,” he said.
For UC Davis evolution and ecology professor Richard Grosberg, “this is a call out to all of humanity that we absolutely need to do something about climate change, and we need to do it now.”
He says ocean creatures are at risk, as well, and that the declining number of species will, unless stopped, pose risks to people.
“The impacts are initially going to fall on communities that are the most remote, but the most dependent on natural resources,” Grosberg said. “But ultimately, if we lose those resources then we’re going to lose much more biodiversity than we ever imagined and almost all the resilience of the earth’s ecosystems that provide everything that we need.”
Grosberg’s colleague Geerat Vermeij studies mollusks and says humans have “pretty much extinguished some abalone species.” Abalone need to be abundant to reproduce because they’re eggs and sperm join in the water column.
“Now most of the species are at such low densities they can’t reproduce,” Vermeij said.
But not all threatened species are in such a dire place in California. The federally threatened red-legged frogs have shown signs of population growth in places like Yosemite National Park after about a five decade absence and restoration efforts.
"It's unusual to find eggs in any location and to find them this soon is a strong indication that red-legged frogs are adapting successfully to the riparian areas where we reintroduced them," said Yosemite National Park Superintendent Mike Reynolds. "This is a major milestone in our work to reestablish a species that contributes to a healthy park ecosystem."
The restoration program began in 2016 and around 700 adult frogs and 4,000 frog eggs and tadpoles were reintroduced. Another 275 are planned for release in Yosemite Valley in June.