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posted: 5/6/2014 12:32 PM

What we can do to protect endangered species

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"Why do animals that are endangered live in the same habitat as other animals that are not endangered?" asked sixth-graders in Nancy Sullivan's classroom at Frederick Nerge Elementary in Roselle.

Most areas of the world have been affected by destruction or change due to human impact.

"Habitat loss or alteration is probably the No. 1 thing that causes endangerment," said Jay Petersen, curator of carnivores and primates at Brookfield Zoo.

The Lake Michigan Forum reports, "People have begun to realize that changes to one part of an ecosystem impact the health of the entire system. In order to improve environmental quality, all aspects of an ecosystem need to be addressed."

How do living things become extinct?

Some creatures were hunted to extinction, like the Carolina parakeet, at one time considered an orchard pest and subsequently exterminated, and the passenger pigeon, a game bird wiped out for sport. In some regions, native forests have been mowed down to make room for farms and cities, eliminating critical bird habitats.

Sometimes, plant and animal species spread into an area where they are not native. They adapt and can dominate an area, overtaking existing resources and eliminating or constricting the native plant and animal life.

"Exotic species don't have all the checks and balances as if they had developed in that area," Petersen said.

Invasive species that have damaged local ecology are Asian carp and zebra mussels. "They take small plants out of the food chain and create habitat for other invaders like algae," he explained.

Disease can attack species and reduce or eliminate numbers. A fungus called white-nose syndrome is devastating little brown bat and long-eared bat populations in Illinois. A theory is people carry the disease on clothing, shoes or caving gear when they visit abandoned mines or caves. Many caves have been closed by the state to try to prevent the disease from attacking bats.

Researchers and specialists from zoos worldwide participate in the Species Survival Plan -- a cooperative population management and conservation program that helps to boost animal numbers among endangered species or those on the brink of becoming extinct.

The addax, native to the Niger desert, is extremely rare because of over-hunting. Brookfield Zoo and more than 40 international organizations have pooled resources to double species numbers and reintroduce this large curly-horned antelope to its homeland.

Plants and animals that are threatened, endangered or extinct have coexisted with many thriving species.

Thankfully, the impact of the loss has not created havoc on the whole ecosystem, allowing for restoration projects to rebalance ecosystems. With awareness and action, threatened species can be monitored and nurtured to regain healthy populations.

What can we do to restore the habitats?

Petersen supports membership in the World Wildlife Fund, "the biggest voice for protection," he said, and the Nature Conservancy, in addition to participation in zoo events and classes.

"Be aware of the natural world and read about it," Petersen added. "Go places where these concerns are represented."

May 16 is Endangered Species Day in the U.S. The bald eagle, Florida panther, grizzly bear and gray wolf are a few animals that now are expanding and flourishing. The Endangered Species Act of 1973 made protecting animal and plant species and their habitats a responsibility of the federal government.

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