An adult wolf and a wolf pup. Wolves, a keystone species, are listed as endangered in Oregon under the Federal Endangered Species Act. Photo by M L on Unsplash.

In recent decades, many of Oregon’s native species have faced difficulties. Climate change, logging, and other forms of habitat destruction have taken a toll on various animal populations, and protecting endangered species is more important than it has ever been before. Human intervention can offset the delicate balances required for a stable ecosystem, potentially causing species to be at a disadvantage. As a reaction to these imbalances, there are currently conservation efforts being made to counteract the decline of endangered species.

When a species’ decline is clearly human-induced, counteracting intervention and aid from wildlife experts is needed. Maintaining these natural balances is especially important for Oregon’s keystone species. “A keystone species is a species that really positively affects the biodiversity of the whole ecosystem,” explains Megan Whisnand, an AP Environmental Science teacher at Franklin. The presence of a keystone species supports the health of many other organisms and plays a central role in maintaining a healthy population size of the other organisms in the same ecosystem. In Oregon, keystone species such as Pacific salmon, sea otters, wolves, and beavers are all listed as endangered or threatened. Without these animals, the ecological effects would be devastating.

In Oregon, there are several endangered keystone species, including Pacific salmon, otters, and wolves, all of which are crucial to the wellbeing of their respective ecosystems. 

It’s difficult to comprehend the astonishing amount of impact that salmon have on other species throughout their entire life cycle. Pacific salmon benefit at least 137 different species during their lifetime due to the food they provide for predators, both in river ecosystems and in the ocean, according to the Wild Salmon Center website. Salmon even support vegetation near the rivers where they die, because their nutrients are spread through the surrounding woods. With the decline of the Pacific salmon’s population, other species are decreasing in numbers as well. To combat this decline, there are major efforts being made; the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund was created in 2000 to provide aid for the salmon. The PCSRF provided 1.3 million dollars towards grants that have allowed for restoration of over a million acres of salmon spawning habitats.

Wolves play a similar essential role in Oregon’s ecosystems. Unlike salmon, a wolf’s main role in an ecosystem is as a predator. “It’s almost like you don’t even realize what a positive impact these animals [wolves] have,” says Whisnand. Wolves are responsible for regulating prey populations such as deer and elk, which in turn supports many other plant and animal species whose populations are negatively affected by overgrazing. When deer and elk have no predators, the grazing populations can become unhealthy as well, when the weaker individuals are able to survive without competition. If there are wolves present, it can be a sign of a healthy ecosystem. There are at least 175 wolves left in Oregon, according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, a significant rise from their 2009 population of 14.

The same can be said for sea otters. According to Ohio State University’s Diversity of Life blog, sea otters are predators of several small sea creatures, namely sea urchins and abalone but also crabs, clams, mussels, and snails. Sea urchins and abalone consume a lot of kelp, which is an important species for a healthy ecosystem. Thus, sea otters support the health and biodiversity of their ecosystems by maintaining the populations of other plant and animal species. Additionally, sea otters are a food source for killer whales and great white sharks. Since 1911, sea otters have been protected by the International Fur Seal Treaty, which banned commercial hunting of fur seals and sea otters. Since then, sea otter populations have recovered slightly.

Joe Leibezeit, a Staff Scientist and Conservation Manager at the Oregon Audubon Society, runs a citizen science program that collects data on multiple species of Oregon’s shorebirds in order to protect them. He also helps advocate for policies that support coastal habitat management. “Some of [these policies] are regulatory oriented, like stronger limits on shellfish or marine plants,” both of which are a major food source for nesting shorebirds. Other policies focus on “[providing] better management for our rocky intertidal habitats.” 

One of the main species that Liebezeit focuses on are black oystercatchers, which depend heavily on the rocky shore habitat for feeding and nesting. “It’s a species of concern because its numbers are very low, and it’s vulnerable to human disturbance,” says Liebezeit. The black oystercatcher’s numbers are declining due to climate change factors including sea level rise, stronger storms, and ocean acidification. Ocean acidification is when carbon dioxide in the air gets absorbed by the ocean, driving up the acidity of the water. “There’s much more carbon dioxide in the air, and more and more of it is being captured by the ocean,” explains Liebezeit. The unhealthy acidity levels harm the black oystercatcher’s prey.

The logging of old growth forests is also a problem for the northern spotted owl, which is listed as threatened. Since the implementation of the Northwest Forest Plan, old growth forests have been protected from logging in western Oregon. This plan did not come without its controversies, though. As Whisnand explains, “it sort of became these sort of timber wars [between] environmentalists and loggers.” The passage of the Northwest Forest Plan meant that logging companies could no longer log in the protected areas, because of the environmentalists’ desire to protect native species. The northern spotted owl has been in decline since the 1970s, upon the introduction of the invasive barred owl. Having another owl species competing for food has put pressure on northern spotted owls’ populations, because prey is more scarce. 

Conditions are changing too fast for many species, in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere, to adapt to the new conditions. “We’re in the sixth extinction,” says Whisnand. “The rate of species loss is comparable to when the dinosaurs [went extinct].”

But it is never too late to try and reverse some of the negative impacts that climate change and other human impacts have on our species through passing legislation with the goal of protecting them and aiding their recovery. But how do we make people care enough to support our beloved flora and fauna? It may be as simple as encouraging people to experience nature for themselves and see all of the beautiful things that these different ecosystems hold. As Whisnand explains, “The more we get people to connect with [nature] the more we get people to care about it, and the more we get people to care about it, the more people want to take action.” She believes that getting citizens involved could really make a difference. Liebezeit and the Audubon Society have implemented citizen science as a way to get members of the general public involved with conservation, and as a way to collect data. Each species that we lose contributes to the loss of other species in the same ecosystem, and conservation efforts seek to intervene and stop the domino effect, thereby protecting endangered species.

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